The 100 Essential Directors Part 5

Derek Jarman to Mike Leigh

by PopMatters Staff

14 August 2011


Krzysztof Kieślowski

Krzysztof Kieślowski
(1941 - 1996)

Three Key Films: The Decalogue (1989-90), The Double Life of Veronique (1991), Red (1994)

Underrated: White (1994) Nothing in Kieślowski’s oeuvre is really underrated since he produced so few films and all are heralded as masterworks. So, I have improvised here a bit, and chosen the only film he ever made that I think is less than perfect. This light, comic examination of the theme of equality (the blanc of the bleu/blanc/rouge thematic framework for the trilogy) works on almost every level for me, but is truly the only film of his that fails to hit me all at once, to stagger me into awed submission. Though Julie Delpy gives an admirable performance, I think it is the way she is directed that is my stumbling block here, and no scene exemplifies this more explicitly than the bizarre and surreal scene in which she performs a screeching orgasm as though she were a cat. Unlikely, deeply unsexy, and character-shattering, it is the only downright mistake in this utter master’s far-too-tiny oeuvre.

Unforgettable: The Recycling Lady, Red Throughout almost all of Kieślowski’s films, certain images and even characters recur. Indeed, part of the joy of re-watching his films is in recognizing how of a piece they all are, how interconnected and tangled up is their mythology, and how excitingly and satisfyingly poetic this feels. Overall, perhaps the most unassuming, but most poignant image to recur in his work is the tiny old Recycling Lady, struggling to get her bottle into the appropriate slot. In Blue, White and The Double Life of Veronique she is left helpless, pathetically failing to accomplish this most mundane of tasks, as each of the main characters see her but fail to act. It is only in Rouge that Irène Jacob comes to her aid. And, all at once, it is shivers and hot tears.


Red (1994)

The Legend: Born in war-torn Warsaw and raised in a shattered post-war and Soviet-influenced Poland, Kieślowski found his way into film almost by accident, his actual intention being to study movies so as to become a superior theatre director. Emerging from the same Łódź Film School that had produced both Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda, he turned first to making gritty documentaries about working life in a so-called “worker’s paradise”. By the mid-‘70s he was trying his hand at fiction, but his non-documentary films emphasized social realism and maintained a third-party perspective that helped to define his signature style. Kieślowski’s camera would focus on the mundane, everyday events and moments and activities, reminding viewers that though he was presenting a fiction, this fiction was grounded in real life.

In the post-Solidarity Polish political landscape, Kieślowski was able to produce more freely, and by the late ‘80s was working toward what would be his first major masterpiece, the ten-hour film cycle The Decalogue. Wildly ambitious, each of the ten films in this cycle were based on one of the Ten Commandments, and featured overlapping characters and overarching themes. Set mostly in a grey, brutalist apartment bloc, and exploring the most central moral and ethical questions in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Kieślowski’s film cycle was an unqualified success, and vaulted him to the attention of filmmakers around Europe.

Now able to secure funding from outside Poland, his next (and final) four films would be co-productions with Western studios, and would achieve the international attention they richly deserved. Indeed, energized by his sudden fame following the success of 1990’s The Double Life of Véronique, and the waves of adulation lavished upon that sensitive, haunting film, Kieślowski undertook another ambitious film cycle that would explore the three colours of the French flag, and the ostensible ideals each colour was meant to symbolize. As each of these films appeared in the early ‘90s, critical attention and popular interest in his work snowballed.

By the time of Red, the ultimate film in the cycle in 1994, Kieślowski was an international sensation. In one of those hopelessly tragic turns of fate, however, it would prove to be his last film. He died on the table during heart surgery two years later, while only part of the way through his next cycle of three films loosely based on Dante’s Inferno-Purgatorio-Paradiso. Throughout his films characters recur, scenes are replayed, ideas are discussed again and again, and nothing is ever really resolved. It is often said that he made the same film again and again, but it is more accurate to say that he made one very long film from several different angles. Each new perspective lends a new layer of complexity, of mystery, of revelation, of beauty. Stuart Henderson



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