After he finished “Red” (1994), the last film in the “Three Colors” trilogy, Krzysztof Kieslowski announced that he would be retiring. This is not a man who is tired of work. It was the retirement of a wizard, a Prospero who was now content to put his art aside–“reading and smoking.” When he died two years later, he was only 56 years old.
Because he made most of his early work in Poland during the Cold War, and because his masterpiece “The Decalogue” consisted of 10 hour-long films that didn’t easily fit on a multiplex conveyor belt, he still hasn’t received such recognition. remembering those who deserve to be named, such as Bergman, Ozu, Fellini, Keaton, and Bunuel. He was one of those filmmakers I would turn to for consolation if I found out I was dying, or to laugh at when I found out I was going to live.
He often deals with illness, loss, and death, but a deep collection of humor floats beneath the surface of his films. There is a scene in “White” (1994) where the hero, a Polish hairdresser, is so homesick in Paris that he arranges to be sent back to Warsaw, huddled in a suitcase. His friend on the other end looked at the airport conveyor belt in horror: The bag wasn’t there, had been stolen by a thief who broke the lock, only found the little man, beat him viciously and threw him in the garbage heap. Staggering to his feet, he looked around, bloody but triumphant, and shouted, “Finally home!”
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In “Blue” (1993), Juliette Binoche played a young woman whose husband and child were killed in a car accident. After a period of emotional paralysis, he called an old friend who had always been in love with him, and told him that his opportunity had finally come. They have sex. He wanted to see if that would help. That does not. But coincidentally, he met someone: He met his husband’s mistress.
He nursed the dog back to health and returned it to its owner, a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who told him he could pet it. He wasn’t too worried about dogs. He spends his days intercepting his neighbors’ phone calls, and he watches them through his window almost like God – actually, like God – curious, because they have free will, what they will do next. After a lifetime of passing the verdict, he wanted to be a detached observer.
As a young man, this judge fell in love once, lost that love, and has endured ever since. He all but caresses her emotional wounds. Although at first she rudely rejects Valentine, she slowly begins to tell her story. There’s a moment in “Red” where Valentine leans forward to listen so attentively and sympathetically that he appears to be praying. Only gradually do we learn that the story of the judge and his lost love reveals parallels with the story of Valentine and his ever-absent lover, and with the life of a young law student who lives across from his apartment in the city–a student he has never met.
In another timeline, in a parallel universe, Judge and Valentine might fall in love. They miss the same age only about 40 years. Now that Hubble has looked back at the beginning of time, it doesn’t seem like many years. There is a passage in one of Loren Eiseley’s books where he descends a crevice in the desert and finds himself looking at the skull of one of humanity’s earliest descendants, staring back at him for countless centuries. He reflects that from a cosmological perspective, they lived at almost the same time.
“The Decalogue” and its trilogy were written in collaboration with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a lawyer Kieslowski met during the Solidarity trial. “He didn’t know how to write,” the director recalled, “but he could talk.” Silent in a room filled with smoke, they talked through the film together. Although he always wrote with Piesiewicz, Kieslowski oddly used a different cinematographer for each film; he didn’t want them to look good together. One imagines Piesiewicz as a proponent of a contrarian view, because the films consistently reject delivery in the way one would expect.
All three films connect us with direct narrative interest. It’s the same with “Decalogue”, where each film is based on one of the Ten Commandments, but it’s not always possible to say which commandment, or exactly what the film says about it. I know this because I taught “Decalogue” in a film class, where we found that the order of commands differed slightly in the Jewish, Catholic and Protestant versions. “And in Kieslowski’s version,” one student sighed.
In an equally elusive way, using symbolism that seems to only help, “Blue,” “White” and “Red” represent the French tricolor, representing freedom, equality and brotherhood. Juliette Binoche, in “Blue,” has the freedom, after losing her husband and child, to start living again, or not at all. Back home in Poland, he wants to make millions so he can be his equal, and seek revenge. Valentine and the old judge in “Red” have a brotherhood of souls that crosses boundaries of time and gender as they both have the imagination to appreciate what could be.
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