They don’t make movies like this anymore. Even the most self-conscious of European films, destined to be widely promoted in America with dull trailers, tasteful posters, and an art house blitz, aren’t as unapologetically indulgent as the recent films of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. His The Double Life of Veronique offers an oblique meditation on the properties of light alongside a metaphysical study of Veronique, a French woman who inadvertently photographs her perfect double (Weronika) while visiting Poland. Blue casts art-house standby Juliette Binoche (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Damage) as a mopey French widow, and features a rich and overwhelming orchestral score and arresting imagery (a sugar cube touched to coffee fills the movie screen as the white crystals turn brown) that literally bring the film to a halt time and again. White is a neatly comic film about marriage and capitalism that travels from France back to Poland and offers up at least one show-stopping visual metaphor — the screen blazes white in illustration of Julie Delpy’s orgasm, reducing audiences to gasps and titters.
Kieslowski’s harshest critics maintain that the films sap the sympathies of an irredeemably gullible audience. They accuse him of arranging for fashionable Frenchwomen to traipse through his very European landscapes, murmuring New Age platitudes, sleeping with sensitive New Age guys, and pouting for the camera. The director’s newest film, Red, the culmination of his Three Colors trilogy which also includes Blue and White, they insist, is overblown claptrap, substituting notions of Fate and Destiny for credible filmmaking. The new issue of Film Comment (November-December 1994) juxtaposes a rich essay on the trilogy by New York Daily News critic Dave Kehr with a tirade against it (by Phillip Lopate) which insists that the film’s supporters have been aesthetically “bamboozled.”
Kieslowski’s audience is neither gullible nor easily amused. The concluding scenes of Red, which may represent the conclusion of the director’s career, tie the three films of the trilogy together so perfectly and unexpectedly that their themes resonate in a viewer’s head for days afterward. The films ostensibly examine the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, but they do so in the service of a much broader agenda. Kieslowski has integrated three very distinct pieces into a triptych that folds in on itself and contemplates its own nature. In the process, his characters determine one another’s destinies, even as the director plays God.
Irene Jacob, the uncannily radiant star of Veronique, is Valentine, a Swiss model who we see shooting an advertisement for (of all things) chewing gum. In the film’s most memorable visual trope, her face is to be reproduced on a huge banner and draped against the side of a building in Geneva. Accidents and mishaps drive much of the action in Kieslowski’s films, and the most important relationship here is catalyzed when Valentine, trying to tune in a distant radio station on her car stereo, hits a dog in the street. The dog, named Rita, is bleeding, but alive, and Valentine tries to take it back to its home. Valentine finds Rita’s owner, the retired judge Joseph Kern (the perfectly crusty Jean-Louis Trintignant), who hardly seems to care whether the dog lives or dies. Kern leads a solitary life, but has a radio set up so that he can monitor the telephone conversations of his neighbors. Valentine initially finds his aural voyeurism repugnant, but a strange bond grows between the two characters as they relate their life stories to one another.
The film contains a great many telephone conversations, and indeed Kieslowski investigates the ways in which we humans communicate (or fail to communicate) with one another. It’s telling that the relationship between Valentine and Kern (they could be lovers if not for their age difference) is the only one in which two people seem to be gaining knowledge and support from one another (Valentine has a boyfriend, Michel, who is in England and who she plans to visit, but throughout Red she only communicates with him by telephone). It would be unfair to give away further details, since much of the film is wrapped up in the intricate relationships that color the lives of both Valentine and Kern, and an odd sort of “double life” that Kern himself is living. The film, and the trilogy, culminate in an act of God which hinges on the intrusion of the director himself, who decides the final fate of his characters.
Although Kieslowski obviously finds something fascinating in the face of Jacob (which is honestly the glue holding this film together), one is tempted to draw the conclusion that it’s Trintignant’s misanthropic old judge — who conspires to manipulate his own cast of characters — that the director feels the closest affinity with. It’s a very good sign, then, that the embittered judge finds some measure of satisfaction and redemption at the end of Red (which, incidentally, Kieslowski claims is his last film). Kern has a pointed conversation with Jacob at one point, asking her why she stopped to pick up the dog and take it to a doctor. Was it to help the dog, he wants to know, or was it to make herself feel better, less guilty? By the end of the film, the judge will be asking himself the same question about his own contrivance, one that is key for Kieslowski, who has said in interviews that he has come to believe people are inherently selfish.* Critics have complained that Kieslowski’s films are reliant on coincidence and overblown ideas about Destiny, but it’s a moot complaint when the director is so honest about his role as grand manipulator of his own world, weaving his presence thematically into the work. The culmination of his masterful Three Colors trilogy suggests there is Something Larger than Kieslowski’s characters. Whether that is the Deity or simply the Director is left for us to decide.
* See the discussion of Red in Danusia Stok’s excellent collection of interviews, Kieslowski on Kieslowski, published in the U.S. by Faber & Faber. ISBN: 0-571-16733-0.