Welcome, everyone to Krzysztof Kieślowski Club. The first rule of Krzysztof Kieślowski Club is, of course, never spell club with a ‘K’, as it attracts entirely the wrong sort of clientele, and I’m not talking about Mortal Kombat fans.
For me at least, the Polish director was very much part of baby’s first attempt at cinephiling, as I approached the world cinema section in Fopp with a student loan burning its way through my back pocket. Those Three Colours DVDs were then lovingly put on a shelf, and I went off and watched Aliens again, or Violent Cop, or all the other nonsense I’ve subjected myself to. Twenty years and numerous shelves later, those DVDs remain unwatched, but that changes now. Well, technically it doesn’t as couldn’t be bothered finding the DVDs and just downloaded them, but that aside, we’re looking at six of Kieślowski’s films to see if he is all that and a bag of potato chips.
A Short Film About Killing
I’ve not seen Dekalog, the series of short films based on the 10 Commandments, but even having read a little about them I’m not sure I was expecting the title to be quite so literal a description, to the point that the killing in question so dominates the rest of proceedings that there’s almost no point in relating them.
But I’ve never let the pointlessness of my actions stop me in the past, so here goes. Jan Tesarz’s Waldemar Rekowski is a taxi driver in Warsaw, and is a a bit of a tool. Not as much as Mirosław Baka’s Jacek Łazar, however. Waldemar is lecherous as self-interested, but Jacek seems happy to cause minor acts of destruction and violence. Ultimately their fates will become intertwined, briefly, when Jacek hires Waldemar’s cab for a trip to a secluded field and brutally murders him, in unflinching detail.
He does not get away with this, however, and soon finds himself in court, represented by Krzysztof Globisz’s Piotr Balick, an idealistic, newly minted lawyer stridently opposed to the death penalty in general, and in particular to the one that’s just handed down to Jacek.
From then we move from looking at the crimes of madness, or perhaps as a result of unresolved childhood issues that Jacek relates in to Piotr, to the state sanctioned killing doled out in prison, and Jacek is taken away and hanged. So, two killings for the price of one, don’t say that Kieślowski doesn’t provide value for money.
So, yes, it’s about killing, in a way that I suppose short cuts a lot of quibbles I could raise about the relative absence of narrative or indeed relatable characters. It’s not primarily interested in trying to paint a portrait of, or create a deep understanding into the mind of a killer. Which does rather undercut itself when it makes the half hearted attempt at doing so later on in the film.
Also on the “not sure why they bothered” side of things lies our lawyer, apparently a large part of the film’s expansion from the one hour TV origins, and an agreeable enough fellow, but not one who is not really of much interest or utility outside of the tirades against the death penalty.
While Killing is clearly coming from an anti-death penalty standpoint, to its credit it’s not being overly prescriptive in forcing you into drawing a moral equivalence between the acts of murder, one state sanctioned, on display here, even if it’s not going out of its way to present any opposing viewpoints. Which is fine, it’s not claiming to be a documentary, shot in a deliberately ugly way, all brutalist locations and murky filters and extraordinary vignetting giving a dark tone to match the subject matter.
It’s odd now, writing this in Space Year 2019 in Britain, and thinking about how this would have been received at the time in Poland where strident debates and, soon, law-changing on this issue was happening, or indeed how this is received today in any of the less civilised nations where the death penalty is still enacted. The death penalty has, the highly occasional right wing nutter aside, not been something we’ve had to think about it Britain for, well, as long as I’ve been old enough to know what the death penalty is, really, so it did feel a little less socially relevant to me.
That’s a luxury others may not have, and if you are in one of those locations this still has some powerful observations at its core. Given that it’s more of a social studies essay than a film, it almost seems trite to judge it as a film. Suffice to say, it’s hardly entertainment in any traditional, fun, sense of the term, but as film-making, it’s solid work.
A Short Film About Love
Welcome to a world where people take their shoes off and put them on the dining room table, people butter rolls on the outside and gas leaks are checked for using fire. Welcome to a world where we first encounter what is going to become something of a recurring theme in the films we are discussing in this episode, the… now, I wanted to research this and make sure I was using the correct psychological term of art … yes, here we are… the recurring theme of “the right creepy basturt”.
The creepy basturt in this case is Tomek, played by the Polish Damon Albarn (Olaf Lubaszenko), a nineteen year old orphan who lodges with the mother of his friend (who was also a creepy basturt). Tomek works in the local post office by day and teaches himself foreign languages in the evenings, but his main passion is spying on Magda (Grażyna Szapołowska), an older woman who lives in the opposite block of flats, through first opera glasses and then a telescope, robbed from somewhere specifically for this purpose.
As if this weren’t bad enough, he makes silent telephone calls to her, steals her letters and sends her fake money orders that result in her being publicly decried as a fraudster by the postmistress when she attempts to cash them. Naturally, then, when Tomek confesses his crimes Magda goes to the police and has the little pervert sent to jail.
Or it would have if this film wasn’t written by someone who I’m pretty convinced was also a right creepy basturt as, instead of that rational course of action, Magda instead agrees to go on a date with Tomek, seduces him and, after he attempts suicide because he ejaculated early, seemingly falls in love with him. This is a film by aliens, about aliens and, seemingly, for aliens, that is somehow almost universally critically acclaimed and I’m mystified.
A Short Film About Love (Krótki film o miłości in Polish) is absolutely not about love. It’s about many things that love is not, principally obsession, but it’s not about love. Out of curiosity I checked how this film was named in other languages, and while the Portuguese, Italian and Spanish titles seem more appropriate, the French and English titles seem to be accurate translations of the Polish original, leaving me hoping that the title is ironic (you might think it obviously is so, but A Short Film About Killing isn’t ironic, it is about killing, so there’s copious room for doubt).
Various other reviewers have described A Short Film About Love as being about the inherently impersonal nature of city life and its loneliness and lack of community, or about the “impossibility of love” and I’m not buying any of it. It’s about voyeurism and obsession, except that it’s OK if the voyeur looks away during sex, and that if you just tell the person you’re spying on then they’ll immediately fall in love with you. Nah. It’s creepy basturt wish fulfilment, and I’m having none of it.
There are little bits of interest here, particularly given the time and place where it is set, with notions of Cold War-era paranoia and the idea that, when we live in such proximity, privacy is as much an illusion as Magda claims love to be, but when Magda’s actions defy all logic and credibility (I refer you to my earlier aliens comment) the film falls apart.
The Double Life of Veronique
We’ve gone from the overly literal titles to the overtly misleading ones, I see.
I can’t think of a way to talk about the presented narrative of this film without sounding exceptionally dismissive, which I don’t necessarily mean pejoratively. At any rate, Irène Jacob’s Weronika goes about her life, visiting her aunt in Kraków where she stumbles into an audition for a choir, which she nails. Walking home, she notices an extraordinarily similar looking tourist on a bus, but before we can do much with this information, Weronika abruptly drops dead during a performance.
Off to Paris, then, with said tourist Véronique (Irène Jacob, naturally) going about her life as a music teacher, impressed with the tale spun by visiting puppeteer and author Alexandre Fabbri (Philippe Volter). The feeling is seemingly mutual, as confirmed by a weird scavenger hunt as mating ritual. Soon, Véronique checks her photographs, noticing an extraordinarily similar looking Polish girl, which perhaps ties into her vague feeling like she was here and somewhere else at the same time. The film then ends.
Now, I don’t really dislike The Double Life of Veronique, but I’d feel remiss if I didn’t point out that it is, at the very best and giving it a lot off leeway, the Life of Weronika and Also the Life of Véronique Who Is Not Leading a Double Life, But One Single Life With Some Really Vague Feelings About Another Life That is Alluded To Once Or Twice_, but I suppose that’s not as snappy a title.
Irène Jacob does give a very likeable performance which helps immensely, and the romance with Philippe Volter is as believable as something that’s tending more towards fairytale than gritty realism can be, which fits well with the tone of the piece.
However I can’t help but feel it should have been doubling down harder on that fairytale elements, particularly if you must actually attempt to link the two women’s lives in a way other than mere coincidence, which it does maybe quarter-heartedly and one-eighth-assedly.
Really, I got to the end of this and filed it as a film that I have seen, and will most likely never think of again. Wikipedia, the internet’s ultimate arbiter of truth, informs me that this film explores the themes of identity, love, and human intuition. If it does, then I have explored the tombs of the Egyptian Pharos, because I was in a plane that flew somewhere vaguely near to them in one dimension and a few thousand feet above them in another at some point, once.
So, it’s immaculately produced, with likeable performances, and some intriguing narrative hooks that made this a pleasant watch, but I can’t find any of the depth it seems I’m expected to in this. So, I’m not recommending you avoid it, by any means, but I can’t give it a full throated thumbs up, because, well, that’s not how thumbs up work.
Three Colours: Blue
So we’ve come to the Three Colours Trilogy, something which has been described by many as Kieślowski’s masterpiece, but, since his masterpiece has also been identified as Dekalog, the ten part short film series made for Polish TV, opinion is clearly divided.
Based on the colours of the French flag, Three Colours consists of three parts, Bleu, Blanc and Rouge, with each said to represent the ideals of the French Republic, liberté, egalité, fraternité (liberty, equality and fraternity), though they’re sort of retroactively mapped on as Kieślowski himself said that those particular three words are used because the money to make them came from France, but if the money had come from elsewhere the films would probably have been much the same.
Trois couleurs: Bleu, the first entry, is about freedom, even if that freedom was not something that had been sought. Julie (Juliette Binoche) is the wife of a lauded composer whose husband and daughter die in a car crash at the film’s opening. She wakes in hospital to find herself freed from her past and her present and with an unknown future. Clearly lost, she makes a half-hearted attempt at suicide, and witnesses her housekeeper in floods of tears because she is incapable of them herself for her lost family.
She calls her husband’s assistant, who she knows to be infatuated with her, to come and have sex with her in an attempt to feel something, anything. It fails, and she goes from the home she shared with her family, scraping her fist along a stone wall in her numbness as she leaves her old life for good.
Julie then moves to Paris and finds a flat in a relatively rundown area of the city where she knows no-one and no-one knows her, intent on living a life without attachment, memory or possessions. That’s a difficult task for anyone, and certainly for someone as inherently decent as Julie. She befriends Lucille (Charlotte Véry), a sex worker who survives a petition to have her evicted from their apartment building after Julie refuses to give her signature to the unanimous consent the measure requires, and this friendship inadvertently leads to Julie discovering that her husband had been having an affair.
She is also tracked down by her husband’s assistant, Olivier (Benoît Régent), who is now shown to be, alas, yet another creepy basturt and who, in line with all of these other films, begins a closer relationship with Julie rather than being told to take a hike. She and Olivier work together to complete Patrice’s final commission, a Concert for the Unification of Europe, and it’s clear that there is at least a portion of truth in a reporter’s assertion earlier in the film that Julie, and not her husband, was the composer, which raises yet another possibility of what it was that Julie fled and is seeking freedom from: living a lie, a charade.
Meanwhile, Julie tracks down her husband’s former mistress and discovers that she is pregnant with her husband’s child, though her subsequent actions are probably not those you’d expect (or, for that matter, necessarily believe).
As with most of the works we’ve watched for this episode, Three Colours: Blue is more about mood than narrative, though it manages to largely satisfy on both counts here. Colour plays a large part in both, and Sławomir Idziak’s photography and use of blue hues conveys the sense of loss, isolation, hopelessness and depression that Binoche’s character feels, though never feels overwhelming or oppressive.
The bigger question about this film, and the Three Colours trilogy as a whole, though, is what it’s saying about the European Union. If the increased unity of the nations of Europe post-Maastricht Treaty is so hopeful, why is the music so funereal and sombre? Of course, it could just be that it’s not very good music, which is certainly also true, but does it hint at the director’s own feelings, particularly from his perspective as a citizen of now post-Communist Poland? Probably, but my bigger question remains why, in a film where this piece of music plays such a prominent role, isn’t the music better?
Whatever it does or does not do, it did entertain me, especially Juliette Binoche, an actor I’ve always appreciated. She plays Julie sensitively, ably walking the line between detached, even aloof, and cold, and her response to the impertinent reporter accusing her of rudeness when she questions her days after her husband and child died is pleasingly low-key. A promising start to the trilogy.
Three Colours: White
Zbigniew Zamachowski’s Karol Karol is a sadsack of a man, kicked out of his Paris home and divorced by his, frankly, awful wife Julie Delpy’s Dominique after failing to consummate their marriage. Soon penniless, he’s reduced to begging, but makes a new friend in the shape of fellow Pole Mikołaj (Janusz Gajos), who helps Karol return to Poland.
Still pining for his wife, he makes his way back to his brother and his old hairdressing salon, but before long, and as I write this I cannot recall for the life of my why or how, has become a lookout slash bodyguard for the mob, whom he then outsmarts out of a bunch of money that he uses to set up a successful business with Karol. Then, through some poorly to not at all explained mechanics, sets up a plot to fake his own death and frame his wife for it.
This film is, I read here, about equality. I think I watched a different cut to everyone else.
This is the closest to a comedy that we’ll speak about today, veering towards the dark, but not too much. I seem to have skipped over the more amusing situations in the recap, but watching Karol’s fall and rebirth has its share of funny moments and lines, and despite sounding like total nonsense when condensed the story was interesting enough to pull me along.
I’m not all that convinced by any emotional strings this is trying to pull – Dominique’s so unsympathetic from the outset, and by the end of things Karol has also become a bit of a Jeremy Hunt, so I am not picking up whatever that last scene in the prison is laying down, other than the obvious callback to an earlier scene in Paris.
I might actually have found this the most straight-forwardly enjoyable of the films we speak about here, it being a very solid comic turn from Zamachowski. Again, I’m not sure I’m getting a lot of deeper meaning or a great deal of emotional connection to anything that’s in it. I’m no film expert, of course, I just play one on a podcast, but I’m not sure that there’s a huge amount that you can meaningfully analyse here.
Three Colours: Red
The final part of Kieślowski’s Trois couleurs trilogy, Rouge, is set in Geneva, where young model with asshat boyfriend, Valentine (Irène Jacob), is about to hit the big time. Distracted while driving one night, she hits a dog in the road and, after very awkwardly lifting it into her car, goes in search of the animal’s owner to ask if she should take it to the vet, instead of taking the dog that she hit with her car directly to a vet, like a thinking person.
The dog is owned (and immediately disowned) by Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a retired judge and, I’m afraid to say, yet another right creepy basturt. He spends his days listening to all of the phone calls of his neighbours (why they are all on the phone all of the time, and why they all use cordless phones, is never addressed, probably since the answer would be “narrative convenience/contrivance”), undermining a career in which he enforced the law with a retirement in which he breaks it with abandon.
He has seemingly little contact with other humans, at least up until the point that the beautiful dog basher comes calling. Valentine is, of course, appalled by his voyeurism and goes straight off to inform his neighbours. And then doesn’t, but instead forms a friendship with the creepy old basturt. (One could read this in a number of ways, including suggesting that we’re all voyeurs deep down, but again I come back to the idea of “right creepy basturt wish fulfilment”, which fits rather better than most other readings.)
While this is comfortably the weakest of the Trois couleurs trilogy for me I still enjoyed watching it, and I think much of that has to do with the acting. While Irène Jacob doesn’t have an enormous amount to work with she still has much more than with the complete non-entity that was her character in La double vie de Véronique, though when she uttered the line “I feel something important is happening around me, and it scares me” I scoffed, thinking “no, it really isn’t, so don’t worry about that”. But Jean-Louis Trintignant manages to bring a level of engagement and sympathy to his character that is hardly merited: watching his and Jacob’s friendship bloom, despite its clear unlikeliness, is rewarding, as is the recalibration of his moral compass thanks to her influence (despite this, also, being hard to believe). It may be the weakest of the three in plot or character, but Rouge wins in the acting stakes.
As with the other two instalments the film looks wonderful, with the vibrant and saturated nature of this film’s title colour meaning that its presence is the most striking. As well as echoing the warmth evoked by Rouge’s ostensible theme of _ fraternité_ it brings some welcome colour compared to the relatively muted Bleu and Blanc.
Much of the film’s good work is undone by an ending scene in which, out of nowhere, the main characters of all three films are smashed together in a tragedy, and for no good reason that I can discern (it also seems to be at odds with the ending of Trois couleurs: Blanc). It’s clearly following the director’s recurring theme of unconscious interconnectedness, but it’s a particularly ham-fisted way of doing it: “people’s lives can intersect and destiny brings people together or some such nonsense, so I’ll just stick in the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise off of Zeebrugge here, that’ll do”. It’s woefully out of place.
As I’ve mentioned, Kieślowski used recurring themes of interconnectedness and destiny (however much bollocks the idea of destiny actually is), and this film begins with much subtler and interesting ways of suggesting this: when Valentine calls her prat of a boyfriend, a phone rings in the nearby flat of Jean-Pierre Lorit’s Auguste, the young, newly qualified judge whose path almost, but never quite, crosses with Valentine’s throughout the film, which makes the way they are eventually brought together seem even more inept and forced. This was Kieślowski’s last film and that final scene makes me feel like he had run out of ideas or interest. Probably neither are true, but it’s a bum note to bow out on.
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