Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Getting acquainted with ... Krzysztof Kieslowski

This is the sixth in my Getting Acquainted series. I watch three films per month by cinematic talents whose works has largely eluded me so far. I tend to talk about the films openly, so there could be some spoilers. However, they are mostly older films anyway -- that's the point of the series, to force me to expand my back catalog.

But first, to get acquainted with how to spell his name, since I had to write it three different times last month in my Most Recently Seen banner to the right.

I didn't consider his last name very hard. It spells like it sounds. Or rather, it spells like I always thought it sounded -- I always called him "Kize-lowski," rather than "Kish-lofski." But his first name? Yikes. I knew there were a lot of z's in there, but otherwise, what to do?

I came up with a pretty good system for remembering, and I kind of worked it backwards, dividing the nine-letter word into three-letter chunks. The last three letters are easy: "tof." Pretty much the most likely three letters to end the name, if you know it's not the French "Christophe." (Though Kieslowski did work in France, so that probably confused some people over the years.) Then with the first six letters, each pair of three ends with a "z." If you know the name starts with the "K," and the "r" sound is next, then you're golden: "Krz." Then, if you know it's time for the vowel sound and can remember the vowel is a "y," then you just have to remember that there's an "s" somewhere in his name, and after the "y" is the only other place it can go if you are to end each of the first two three-letter pairs with a "z." Voila: Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Whew. Enough of that.

Prior to July, I had not yet seen any of the films of this Polish-born director who worked in France at the end of his career. But he was also not necessarily someone whose absence from my filmography felt like a gaping hole I needed to fill. I probably would have gotten around to him eventually, but may not have so soon, if it weren't for a podcast I've started listening to called Filmspotting.

Filmspotting (http://www.filmspotting.net/) is a weekly Chicago-based podcast on film by Adam Kempenaar and Matt Robinson, who calls himself "Matty Ballgame" as a nickname. (He loves sports -- and the fact that he calls Major League his favorite film of all time does not detract from his sizeable credibility. It's a terrific film.) The podcast has a basic format: They start discussing (in detail) a new theatrical release, then move into a number of special segments before finishing with a top 5 on whatever theme they've chosen that week, where each presents his top 5 films that fit the theme. I don't want to sell the podcast short by leaving it at this basic description, but that's all you need for now. I encourage you to check it out yourself: Adam and Matty work hard at it, and they deserve your listenership, even if they already have quite a number of listeners out there.

One of their regular "special segments" is to discuss the most recent film they've seen in a marathon concentrating on a certain director or theme. When I came on board for the podcast a couple months ago, they were in the midst of their Kieslowski marathon -- in fact, having watched a half-dozen other films, they had only the films in Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy still to discuss. I decided that trilogy was a good place for me to start on Kieslowski, even if it constituted the last three films he ever made. I did momentarily consider the fact that I might be tainting my viewing by having listened to the films discussed in detail on their podcast, but I decided to live with that, and hope that only a small amount of what I say below is just parroting what I heard them say. (I tried to only half-listen to those segments of the podcast in order not to be unduly biased.)

But it wasn't just Filmspotting that caused me to put Kieslowski up to bat (a term Matty Ballgame would appreciate) in July. They planted the seed, but I chose July because the titles of the three movies -- Blue, White and Red -- would also have thematic significance here in the U.S. (To unnecessarily spell it out for you, those are the colors in the American flag, and July is the month in which we celebrate our independence. And they say I'm not patriotic ...)

Of course, Kieslowski's Blue, White and Red -- in that order -- are the colors of the French flag, and represent the hallowed French principles of Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite. In fact, each movie is supposed to represent one of those themes, respectively, and each film is also supposed to reflect the same color palette as the title indicates.

I'll discuss how well they did that, and other things, just ahead. Okay, I've prattled on too much already, so I'll try to keep my observations on these films somewhat brief ... like that ever works.

Blue (1993, Krzysztof Kieslowski). Watched: Sunday, July 10th

I felt immersed in Kieslowski's world right away with Blue. It's the story of a woman (Juliette Binoche) who survives a car crash that kills both her husband and her daughter. Although we don't know it right at the start, her husband was a famous composer who was working on a grand symphony to be played in multiple countries at the same time, to honor the unification of Europe. The film basically deals with how she comes to grips with the tragedy, both in terms of the changes it brings about to her own life, and the ways she examines the past, including her own infidelities and the infidelities of her husband.

Ruminations on the daughter, however, are strangely absent from the story. And that's just the first way Blue is outside-the-box from what you'd expect from a movie concerned with grief over loss. Although you might say there's something monstrous about Juliette Bincohe's Julie, that she doesn't obsess over the loss of her child in particular, it's also not Kieslowski's point merely to document grief -- something hundreds of films have already done, sometimes in a manner that's strong, sometimes in a manner that's banal and maudlin. Instead, Kieslowski seems to be interested in the unexpected dimensions of grief and reactions to loss, which undoubtedly make his film more interesting. Kieslowski wouldn't be adding much to the conversation if he just showed scene after scene of Julie unleashing emotional torrents over her daughter, looking fondly at a child's toy and then breaking into tears. He's more interested in the unconventional, such as Julie putting her house up for sale and disappearing into a new life in the city where no one knows where she lives, as well as destroying what she believes to be the only copy of her husband's symphony. It's a reaction to grief -- a relatably human reaction to grief -- but it's not cliche.

I was floored by Kieslowski's technique. Not only is there a resplendent streak of the color blue throughout this movie -- I think of the impossibly blue color of the swimming pool where Julie swims -- but he also employs a number of cinematic touches I've simply never seen before. For one, his use of fade-outs seems to be unique. I've never before seen a film where a fade-out is employed mid-scene -- in other words, Kieslowski fades out on Julie's face, then fades back in on the same shot about three seconds later. The fade is not being used as a structural transition between scenes -- it's being used as part of Julie's emotional transition, from one line of thinking to another. Or so I'm thinking -- I can't say that I made enough note of when he used this technique to be sure I can remember what was going on thematically at the time he used it.

I also remember being really impressed by Kieslowski's camera angles. There's this one terrific shot near the beginning where the daughter is running back to the car after peeing in the woods near the road. (Or maybe she was just playing, I can't remember -- we don't see her squatted over or anything.) The shot is taken from the undercarriage of the car. In the foreground, a brake line is broken, and fluid is dripping out. Only is the little girl visible in the distant background. It's not only impressive merely from the perspective of composition, but it also carries a sense of foreboding, given what is about to happen to these characters.

Lastly I want to comment on the score. The orchestral music composed for this film is brilliant, and although I did not know this at the time in order to look for it, I've since learned that the score was composed in advance, so that the narrative could be synchronized to the preexisting rhythms of the score.

Yeah, this guy Kieslowski knew what he was doing.

The theme of liberty makes its appearance in a hollow sense for the main character. In losing her family, she gains a freedom she didn't have previously. I think much of her melancholy during the film is not that she's miserable over their loss -- it's that she's not more miserable. While on the one hand she's obviously very sad, and even attempts suicide, several characters comment that she's not crying like they expect she would. The film walks a difficult line between the character's grief, and her sense of a violent rebirth that also has its positive aspects for her sense of self, which she seems to be redefining, according to some more basic principles of who she is and how she wants to live. And it walks this line very elegantly.

White (1994, Krzysztof Kieslowski). Watched: Thursday, July 14th

I made the intentional choice to watch one of the Three Colors Trilogy on July 14th -- otherwise known as Bastille Day, the French equivalent of our Independence Day. Of course, the one I chose was the least French of the three movies, a significant portion of which takes place in Warsaw, with a significant portion of the dialogue in Polish.

Defined by Matty and Adam as a black comedy, though I might not have recognized it as such without their classification, White concerns a Polish national (Zbiegniew Zamachowski) living in France, on the eve of divorce from his French wife (Julie Delpy). It's going so poorly for this gentleman that a bird even poops on him in the opening five minutes. In court proceedings it's revealed that she's divorcing him because they never consummated their marriage. However, it's pretty clear she's the jerk out of the two of them, as she holds him in a kind of contempt, even making fun of his limited grasp on the French language. Penniless and on the wrong side of circumstance, Karol looks to return home to Poland, though doesn't have the means to do it. In his darkest hour he meets a stranger, another Pole, who will help him get there -- but in exchange, needs him to complete a mercy killing of a man who no longer wants to live. We soon learn he is referring to himself.

Although it certainly has its poignant moments, as two characters under very different circumstances ruminate on the value of living their lives as currently constructed, White felt choppy to me. It is oddball and, yes, quite funny in parts -- for example, the agreed-upon method to get Karol back to Poland involves packing him in Mikolai's luggage, a plan that goes horribly wrong when the luggage is stolen by rogue luggage handlers. However, you'd think this comedy of errors would have a substantive impact on the narrative. I didn't see that impact. Karol, a hairdresser by trade, makes his way back to his home village and quickly begins cutting hair in the shop of a friend. He does meet Mikolai again later, during which they have some of their most lovely scenes together -- so lovely, in fact, that I thought White was meant to celebrate Fraternite, rather than Egality. (More on that in a minute.) But it's that fact that they are randomly separated by this luggage theft, and it doesn't really mean anything, that makes me doubt the way Kieslowski has constructed the plot. The plot then goes on to involve Karol building back up his personal wealth through a land purchase scheme in which he is swindling some pretty shady characters. It continues on in lurches and starts and ultimately comes to involve Karol faking his own death in order to try to get revenge on Delpy's character.

If it sounds like I may have missed some of the narrative and thematic subtleties of White, well, I may have. I found the theme of equality to be somewhat strained for the film. I guess it's ultimately Kieslowski's idea of restoring balance, which I guess is another way of describing what you do when you get revenge on someone -- you do an equivalent amount of damage to them as they did to you. Karol is also sort of restoring "equality" to his life by returning himself to a position of financial strength. But like I said, it feels a little strange, and I prefer the "fraternity" implied by the relationship between Karol and Mikolai, who play an important role in saving each other from oblivion. (In that sense I guess there is a "balance" to their relationship as well.)

On a technical level, the film is somewhat sparse, but I think that is in keeping with Kieslowski's intentions. And here I know I'm repeating Matty and Adam, though I'm pretty sure the thought would have occurred to me even without them putting it out there -- he reveals the color white through the vast landscapes of a Polish winter, which are washed out but also have a certain minimalist beauty to them.

Red (1994, Krzysztof Kieslowski). Watched: Thursday, July 28th

And the conclusion of the trilogy brings it back up to a high note again, with possibly my favorite of the three films. It's a close call between Blue and Red, really, and in saying this I'm sure I'm just echoing the conventional wisdom on these three movies. What really amazes me is that all three films were made -- or at least released -- within two calendar years. A jaw-dropping level of quality on such a tight timeframe, even if the staging and other logistics didn't present Kieslowski with extra difficulties.

In Red, we follow a fashion model named Valentine (the stunning Irene Jacob), who's involved in a long distance relationship with a man who might or might not love her. ("I think I love you," he says, and then argues that's the same thing as loving her.) Despite her evident beauty, it's clear she's an innocent with a fragile sense of self-worth. When she hits a dog with her car, she tracks the dog back to his owner, a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant, whose character is never named), who spends his days spying on his neighbors by surveilling their phone conversations. Initially we think this man is repugnant, but we steadily realize he's just world weary as a result of seeing way too much of the world's negativity. He has both a deep wisdom and an evident bond with Valentine -- more of a paternal than a romantic bond, but in Valentine he also sees the love of his life that he may never have met. As their relationship develops, the film also follows, in a very limited way, the nascent love life of a young judge who has just been granted license to preside.

I struggled with the plot synopsis of Red more than the others because, really, not a lot happens in this movie. Valentine talks to her indifferent lover on the phone. Valentine participates in photo shoots and fashion shows. The retired judge looks forlorn as he dwells in a self-loathing borne of an event we'll find out about later in the narrative. The young judge goes about his daily activities within a stone's throw of Valentine and her apartment, a fact that will become important later on. In fact, I was confused at first and thought that this might actually be Valentine's lover. There's a juxtaposition of shots early on where Valentine gets off the phone at the same time as the young judge does, and you think for a minute her lover has been lying to her about being out of the country -- instead he's actually daringly close by, pursuing an affair with another woman. Perhaps Kieslowski intended to mislead us this way at first, or perhaps I was just thick and jumped to a wrong conclusion. There's also an idea that the young judge may be some version of the older judge, since the older judge describes a romantic betrayal very much like what happens to the younger judge (Auguste, let's give him a name). In fact, I'm still a bit fuzzy on which interpretation is correct, and whether we're seeing flashbacks seamlessly integrated into the modern story.

You'd think with the relative dearth of action, as well as some potential confusion in the temporal structure of the film, I would have had significant problems with Red. Quite the contrary. I really felt the connection between the sweet and innocent Valentine, whose name not only is a nod to the title but to the fact that she loves too easily and trustingly, and the retired judge, whose wisdom is rich and fulfilling -- who is actually deserving of her companionship despite some appalling betrayals of his fellow man. I was a bit confused about the role of the younger judge in their story until the end, which brings it all together in a surprising way.

I knew to expect something big and surprising at the end -- Matty Ballgame had only said this about the ending: "I never saw it coming." If you haven't watched the trilogy and you also want to not see it coming, I would skip the following paragraph.

The big finale of Red is when Valentine leaves on a ferry to England -- a ferry the older judge suggested she take instead of the plane -- and the ferry sinks, killing almost everyone on board. Those it doesn't kill: Valentine, the younger judge, and the central romantic couples from the first two films. In addition to giving us one of the first overt connections between the three films (there's a brief crossing of paths of Julie and Karol in a courtroom scene that appears in both Blue and White), it also provides a satisfying conclusion to Kieslowski wrestling with ideas of fate, as he has been doing one way or another throughout this trilogy. We see the survivors one at a time, coming onto camera, as the retired judge watches the news coverage on TV -- anxiously, waiting for Valentine to appear. He doesn't appear shocked or surprised -- it's more like he set a plan in motion that he couldn't fully control, and he's waiting to see if it worked out. And here we also realize that he may be some kind of god figure, capable of altering the fates of the people with whom he comes into contact -- which is also a justification for the surveillance of his neighbors. He sent Valentine on that ferry not to rejoin her lover in England, but to meet the younger judge, himself just ill-used by a lover. He tells her earlier that he had a dream in which she appeared -- all he could see was her waking up next to someone, and smiling, at age 50. It seems he has somehow steered the course of events to make this happen, prizing her happiness above the lives of the lost souls on the boat, apparently. Only a person with god-like abilities could do this -- and when we understand that the judge is supposed to be some kind of stand-in for the director (in what he later announced would be his final film, only two years before he died), it seems a clear commentary on the filmmaker's ability to "play God" over the lives of the characters he creates. It might strike some as odd that there's a supernatural element added to this very realistic trilogy, but to me it all seems to blend quite well, never sinking to the level of those films where all the characters are on some kind of gimmicky collision course that is supposed to blow your mind at the end. If my mind was blown here, it was blown organically.

Okay, I need to wrap this up, but I also wanted to briefly comment on the use of the color red in this film. It's everywhere, even more so than the blue in Blue, and I understand it is supposed to indicate the warmth of feeling that is ultimately generated by this film. As for "fraternity," that's a nice way to describe the fraternity of souls who have had their hearts broken, as the two judges have, and as Valentine's heart will be broken if she stays with this lout. I also like it as a way to describe Valentine's relationship with the judge, which we worry will eventually represent itself as the lust of a creepy old man toward a beautiful young model. But in the end, it never does go that way, because the judge is not a creepy old man (despite being introduced as such because of his spying activities), and the young model is actually an old soul with far more wisdom than her age. What they have to offer each other is far greater than fleeting pleasures of the flesh.

Okay, I feel like I wrote some of this sort of quickly, so I hope it came out alright.

I should go back and listen to those podcasts again, now that I've watched the movies. And see if I came up with anything that wasn't planted in my subconscious by the Filmspotting guys.

Returning to my own inspiration for August, and returning to the ranks of actors. See you back here for the next Getting Acquainted in a month's time.


Don Handsome said...

Great write up here. I haven't seen the colors in some time, and was a little hesitant to read your piece just in case I could get spoiled again...on the contrary, your descriptions made the details come rushing back to my memory. These are beautiful films that should be treasured (for the most part) and you've done them right.

I would argue though that while you are acquainted now with Kieslowski, that there is a depth to his work that probably isn't wholly explored by watching these three films. The Double Life of Veronique is certainly something that you’ll fall for…but there are so many other films that I was unfamiliar with as well. Filmspotting's Kieslowski marathon is a great review course in his work. I would recommend going back and listening to the other episodes where they talk about his films and seeing some of those as well. I just got a hold of Camera Buff on their recommendation…well worth the rental.

Good to see the Filmspotting love here as well. I’m so glad you finally got around to subscribing. Adam and Matty prove week after week that Chicago isn't the cinematic wasteland that it sometimes appears to be.

Mike Lippert said...

I've never really gotten into KK either. I've seen the major works (these three, Double Life of Veronique, Decalogue) but haven't really put a lot of serious thought into the man or what his entire body of work stands for. These are though, for what it's worth, great movies indeed.

Alexandre Fabbri said...

A good read and thoughtful. Red was also used by Kieslowski to represent memory. The car battery failing is used to emphasize it too. But it doesn't really matter to Kieslowski. It's not important. Because events or memories will return or repeat even if they do return in ways we may miss if we are not observant. They will happen anyway whether we are aware or not. You may also be interested in reading the poem Love At First Sight said to be the inspiration for the film Three Colors Red.

Alexandre Fabbri said...

Regarding the pronunciation of Krzysztof Kieslowski, Irene Jacob and Zbigniew Preisner please check out my diary entry of Monday, 18 October 2010.

Alexandre Fabbri