Film-Philosophy

(ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 4 No. 18, July 2000

 

 

Jeffrey Hanson

Admiring Kieslowski

 

 

 

Geoff Andrew

_The 'Three Colours' Trilogy_ (BFI Modern Classics)

London: British Film Institute

ISBN: 0-85170-569-3

96 pp.

 

The death of Krzysztof Kieslowski in March of 1996, following shortly on

the heels of his announced retirement, shocked the film world and provoked

a flurry of critical praise and retrospective reflection on his body of

work. Included in this outpouring is Geoff Andrew's monograph on the

director's best-known and most highly regarded work, the _Three Colours_

trilogy, issued by the British Film Institute's Modern Classics series.

 

Andrew's book is a brief, serviceable overview of the trilogy that

admirably contextualizes and summarizes the principal themes of

Kieslowski's masterpiece, for which the author has an unapologetic

affection. Indeed, Andrew's book is more a valentine than a critique.

Citing Kieslowski's own desire to personally influence his audience, Andrew

argues that it is appropriate and unsurprising if his book has a personal

feel. 'Cinema, like music or painting, works on audiences in a very

subjective way, particularly when it deals with 'inner lives' -- and this

was Kieslowski's avowed purpose' (9). Referring to an obituary he wrote for

Kieslowski in London's _Time Out_ (Andrew is the magazine's film editor) in

which he confessed to feeling as if he had lost a friend, Andrew says he

received many letters expressive of similar sentiments. Anyone who has

watched Kieslowski and discussed his work with others probably has had

comparable experiences. Kieslowski's films do have that effect, so Andrew's

book has every right to its perspective, which he warns his reader is far

from unbiased.

 

Andrew certainly evidences a considerable self-understanding. As he puts

it, 'This is not intended as a definitive account of _Blue_, _White_, and

_Red_. Rather, it reflects an unrepentant admirer's attempt to fathom the

films' artistry, to explain as rationally as possible how they managed to

affect him on a deeply emotional level' (11). Readers seeking engagement

with the films' thornier critical questions, a thoroughgoing explanation of

their historical and aesthetic context, or an exhaustive account of their

production must look elsewhere. Andrew's book is really meant for readers

who seek an introduction to Kieslowski's life and work and/or a summary of

the trilogy's plot and style.

 

For his short biographical sketch of Kieslowski's life, and indeed for most

of the quotes in the book, Andrew relies on Danusia Stok's series of

interviews with Kieslowski published by Faber and Faber as _Kieslowski on

Kieslowski_. Andrew places an early emphasis on Kieslowski's youthful

recognition that 'there was something more to life than material things

which you can touch or buy in shops' (12). Andrew thus picks up on the

importance of the spiritual dimension of Kieslowski's work, but as I will

later argue, it is this important thread that really calls out for further

development. The political element of Kieslowski's work he convincingly

reads as being subordinate to an overarching humanistic concern. 'One

senses that, even at this stage in his career, whatever interest Kieslowski

had in the world of politics derived largely from his fascination with its

effects upon the individual' (13-14).

 

This explains Kieslowski's transition into feature films like _Blind

Chance_, _No End_, and the _Decalogue_, all of which Andrew quickly

summarizes. While Andrew makes mention of the quasi-political content of

these works, he glosses the continued spiritual themes, which are at least

as important as the films' political concerns. In his summary of _Blind

Chance_, for example, he fails to mention that Witek joins the underground

as a Christian convert. Furthermore, the overt Christianity of Krzysztof

Piesiewicz, who became Kieslowski's longtime collaborator at this point,

goes unmentioned. Actually, Andrew sometimes sounds as if he is minimizing

the religious element of Kieslowski's work. In a footnote he references

Kieslowski's regret at having chosen a crucifix for Julie to wear in _Blue_

(88), and claims that Kieslowski 'hated' organized religion (68). He

provides no documentation for that claim, whereas in the note above

Kieslowski merely says he is 'opposed to its religious institutions' (88).

Of course there is a world of difference between hating organized religion

(is there even such a thing as disorganized religion?), and being opposed

to religious institutions; any religious tradition, after all, is shot

through with principled participants who are opposed to its institutions.

Furthermore, my experience with artists reared in a religious atmosphere is

that they are rarely able to efface all its traces in their creative

projects, no matter how much they claim to have broken decisively with it.

 

So an account of the religious tradition in which Kieslowski was brought

up, and that Piesiewicz brings to bear on Kieslowski's final and most

important films, must be given if they are to be fully understood. Andrew

calls _The Double Life of Veronique_ 'a brave, unusually successful attempt

to evoke and explore the unseen, unfathomable forces -- fate and chance --

that shape our lives even as we go about our banal everyday business in a

tangible corporeal world' (19). That may be at least partly true, and

indeed I would argue that here Andrew is touching on what is perhaps

Kieslowski's most significant achievement as a filmmaker, but the

outstanding questions are *how* exactly Kieslowski evokes the unseen, *if*

the unseen is merely fate and chance (providence?), and *what* the relation

is for Kieslowski between the unseen and the 'tangible corporeal world'. A

more substantial reckoning with these questions must confront directly the

religious as well as the political elements of Kieslowski's artistry (the

two are not entirely unrelated either, as evidenced by repressed Polish

Catholicism's longstanding resistance to the Communist regime).

 

The body of Andrew's work is devoted to detailed, evocative summary

treatments of _Blue_, _White_, and _Red_, composed with sharp commentary on

Kieslowski's style. Andrew argues that the early scenes from _Blue_, for

example, unites narrative information with the characters' emotional states

without recourse to wooden voice-over narration or point-of-view shots

(27). For Andrew these scenes establish both the style and content of the

film and even symbolize Kieslowski's own understanding of the creative

process: 'Kieslowski himself described the creative process as partly a

matter of 'stealing' ideas -- 'afterwards I can't even remember where I

stole them from' -- or of 'drawing things in' that already exist somewhere

out in the universe' (29). Again, the comment is suggestive, as is the

reference to a street busker's explanation for how he can be playing one of

Julie's dead husband's compositions -- 'I invent lots of things' (31) --

but a philosophical/theological framework would make possible a deeper

understanding of Kieslowski's aesthetic (the neo-Scholastic theory of

Jacques Maritain might be a relevant starting point).

 

In keeping with the dominant critical reading, Andrew interprets the

trilogy as a prolonged meditation not so much on the political implications

of the three slogans of the French republic (liberty, equality,

fraternity), but on their meaning for individual persons, united by an

exhortation to love and human interaction. Whereas Julie in _Blue_ is

hampered by an unrealistic notion of personal freedom and has to discover

the ironic truth that freedom is a kind of bondage, Karol in _White_ has to

sacrifice his misguided, self-serving notion of equality to the law of

love. Despite the darkly comic tone of _White_ in contrast to _Blue_,

Andrew draws several themes in common between the two:

 

'the need to let go of the past, while at the same time acknowledging its

existence, in order to proceed with the present; the sense of life as an

arena in which fate, freedom of will and pure chance are in continual

interplay; the way lives may be haunted by feelings about those who are

absent or dead; the way inanimate objects and places may be invested with

an emotional resonance derived from the party they play in our past or

future; and the sense that love, in all its many, often perverse

manifestations, is the prime motivator behind human action' (49-50).

 

All these elements reach their highest pitch in _Red_.

 

Andrew justifiably dwells on the details of Kieslowski's masterwork. 'If I

have described the contents of Valentine's conversations with the judge in

detail, that is to suggest the intricacy of the many connections the

narrative makes between the various characters, their surroundings, their

present and past . . .' (58). As any viewer of _Red_ of course knows, this

complexity is both masterfully executed and ambiguous. Andrew effectively

traces out the many cross-references in the film and presents the possible

ways of reading them. Is Kern a God-like or Prospero-type figure? Does he

simply have insight into the workings of chance or does he control them?

How do we interpret the parallels between Kern and Auguste? How are we to

understand the final coda, wherein Kieslowski 'saves' his beloved

characters? Full answers to these problems are outside the scope of the

work, but Andrew concludes with an account of the connections between all

three films.

 

All involve characters who have lost their way as a result of some trauma

(67). These characters must each reckon with the past in order to recover

human interaction (68). Summarizing the shared elements, Andrew approaches

what is perhaps the most important task of future Kieslowski criticism. 'In

trying to find our way through life, we need to come to terms with the

workings of fate, chance, the past, ghosts, maybe even God -- things

unseen, one and all' (68). Accordingly, Andrew locates Kieslowski in a

tradition of spiritual European cinema, in the company of 'Dreyer,

Rossellini, Bresson, Bergman and Tarkovsky -- who have attempted to

explore, through a medium that is by its very nature materialistic and

confined to the visual reproduction of physical surfaces, a world that is

obscure, metaphysical and transcendental' (68).

 

In a helpful footnote Andrew hints at a fuller development of Kieslowski's

uniqueness vis-a-vis this tradition. Unlike the intense focus on the human

face practiced by Dreyer and Bergman, or the mysticism of Tarkovsky,

Kieslowski, according to Andrew, developed a style closest to that of

Bresson (89). The comparison, despite Bresson's 'austere, pared-down visual

style, his dislike of 'acting', and his Catholic emphasis on redemption and

grace' (89), is apt and provocative. Once more, however, Andrew reserves

further commentary. The question of how exactly to understand Kieslowski's

spiritual style is one that should occupy another book entirely. Since

1972, when Paul Schrader published his benchmark study on transcendental

style in film, cinema has produced a handful of artists who have

paradoxically explored the unseen through the film medium, though their

styles differ significantly from those of Bresson, Ozu, and Dreyer.

Andrew's book stands as a solid introduction to the masterworks of

Kieslowski, and it points the way toward a critical assessment of his

style. However, if we are to become full inheritors of Kieslowski's legacy,

his spiritual style must be analyzed with Schrader's depth and specificity.

Andrew's admiring book is a reminder that this task is eminently worthwhile.

 

Fordham University, Bronx, New York

 

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2000

 

Jeffrey Hanson, 'Admiring Kieslowski',

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 18, July 2000

<http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n18hanson>.

 

  

 

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