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The Essentials: Krzysztof Kieslowski

The Playlist By Rodrigo Perez | The Playlist March 13, 2013 at 5:34PM

It’s perhaps comical to describe a filmmaker revered in some circles as underrated when they’ve been nominated for some of the biggest prizes in cinema -- the Palme d'Or, Venice’s Golden Lion, the Academy Awards, Berlin’s Golden Bear. But perhaps because Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski never really took many of these major prizes home, and never gained global status until later in his career, we find that the filmmaker is not as revered as we’d like (though he tied for a Golden Lion in 1993). Perhaps this observation is very relative. Perhaps it’s because he didn’t enter the Criterion canon until 2006, perhaps because his career ended too abruptly just as it was truly ascending, or perhaps simply because he’s one of our most adored filmmakers: we routinely never give up an opportunity to celebrate Kieslowski’s work when we can.
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Blue, Julie Delpy, Kieslowski
“Three Colors: Blue” (1993)
Kieslowski’s final troika, the Three Colors trilogy explored the themes of the three colors represented in the French Flag, liberty, equality, and fraternity through three, seemingly unrelated and unconnected individuals (the filmmaker acknowledged the pictures were French because of the funding, but would have been the same under any nationality). For each film, Kieslowski would use a different female protagonist and three different cinematographers to give the films a distinctive look. In his first chapter, “Blue,” arguably the most emotionally devastating of the three, Juliette Binoche stars as Julie, and the sole survivor of a car crash that has killed her daughter and husband, a famous composer. Left to pick up the pieces, Julie initially doesn’t possess the will to go on, but it's strong enough that she can’t even go through a suicide attempt. Attempting to live a dissociative existence and sever ties to her past, Julie begins to discard the possessions of her life in order to be free and begin again save for a chandelier of blue beads owned by her daughter. Yet the past manages to be tricky to elude and a former assistant of her late husband turns up, interested in the condition of an unfinished musical composition, commissioned by the government to celebrate European unity (it's strongly implied throughout that Julie wrote or co-wrote some of this music). Appropriately, “Blue,” is marked by its extraordinary score that often arrives in evocative snatches of orchestral grandeur and the striking sapphire color palate of cinematographer Slawomir Idziak. Sensual, operatic and haunting, “Blue” is a crucial film in this final masterwork.

White, Julie Delpy, Kieslowski
“Three Colors: White” (1994)
Regarded as (and often unfairly dismissed as) the least essential film in the Three Colors trilogy, due to its lighter and more comedic tone, “White” undeniably does not carry the same emotional weight and sense of mysterious import as the triptych’s bookends, but the picture is still nonetheless, an engaging and unlikely diverting treat from the director. Focusing on the theme of equality (and or the lack thereof in this case; Kieslowski’s thematic riffs were hardly linear and often sarcastic), Kieslowski’s black sheep and second film of his lauded trilogy is a sort of black comedy, centering on Karol, a Polish hairdresser (Zbigniew Zamachowski) whose wife (Julie Delpy) has left him due to his impotency. Humiliated, penniless and left abandoned in Paris without a passport, Karol has to make his way back to Poland and during his pilgrimage, he befriends another Pole, Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos) who wants to pay the hairdresser to kill someone who wants to die, but doesn’t have the courage to commit suicide. When Karol finally returns to Poland, his fortunes turn for the better and he begins amassing considerable wealth of which he then uses to hatch a misguided plot of revenge against his wife. A cynical and mordant examination of marriage, power and the inequalities of wealth, “White” may be the weakest of the trio, but Kieslowski still won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 44th Berlin International Film Festival in 1994.

Red, Irene Jacob, Kieslowski
“Three Colors: Red” (1994)
Described as the “fraternity of strangers,” this key line is perhaps the ultimate connecting throughline and obsession in Kieslowski’s work: how one person on the planet could be thinking the exact time as someone else in another part of the world and never know, but maybe could feel a curious sensation at the time. How deja vu or a ringing in the ears could mean something deeper. How those unknown to us are perhaps not strangers at all. A cynical person at heart, but with a deep curiosity of the human condition, some have suggested the theme of fraternity in “Red” was a self-critique of Kieslowski's own selfishness. Whatever the case may be, the ravishing and sumptuous final conclusion of The Three Colors trilogy is haunting, poignant and unforgettable. Starring his muse Irene Jacob once more (after seeing her in ‘Veronique,’ Tarantino wanted her for Bruce Willis’ French wife in “Pulp Fiction,” but ironically, she was busy filming “Red”), the last chapter in the triumvirate centers on two polar opposite strangers who by chance -- via an injured dog -- become more and more connected and even bonding far beyond they would ever imagine. Part time model Valentine (Jacobs) accidentally runs over a German shepherd and then eventually tracks down the owner, a reclusive and retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) soured by old age and the fates of how his life has turned out. He's a nasty man, who Valentine discovers is abusing his powers and secretly recording his neighbors’ phone calls for entertainment value (and to continue his former vocation in some kind of perverse manner). Though morally disgusted with him, the two find themselves inexorably drawn to one another suggesting a missed connection in some part of time they did not exist in concurrently. Typically mysterious, “Red” is even tentatively optimistic and is a striking, poetic meditation on alienation, connection, kinship and togetherness beyond our basic understanding. Quentin Tarantino himself assumed “Red” would win the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year and when “Pulp Fiction” took the prize instead, the filmmaker was met with some boos and jeers from those that expected Kieslowski’s final film to take the top prize. Still, to this day, it remains of the most controversial choices in the history of the festival. Breaking out of the foreign film category ghetto, "Red" was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Director, and was the filmmaker’s final statement. He retired shortly thereafter and died less than 10 months later during open heart surgery.

Also recommended: Kino's "The Krzysztof Kieslowski Collection" which includes the earlier films, including “The Scar” (1976), “Camera Buff” (1979, starring Jerzy Stuhr, who would reappear in several projects down the line), 1981’s “Blind Chance” (a sort of precursor to “Sliding Doors” that showed three outcomes to one man’s life based on luck and chance) and the aforementioned ‘Dekalog’ extended films, “A Short Film About Love,” and “A Short Film About Killing.” With over two dozen shorts and documentaries to his name (shot well before his feature-length dramatic career), one could argue an Eclipse set from Criterion would also be nice, but at this point, we’ll take what we can get. 

This article is related to: Krzysztof Kieslowski, The Essentials, Juliette Binoche, Irène Jacob, Julie Delpy, Three Colors trilogy, The Criterion Collection, Features, Feature


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