And liberty she pirouette
when I think that I am free.
Peter Gabriel Solsbury Hill
Introduction / Doctor Lewis and little Ann – the creation of fear
To begin with a story, a doctor by the name of Lewis and a girl by the name of Ann are keeping each other company in the garden of her home when an aeroplane appears in the sky. In an instant Ann’s harried mother steps out of the house.
“Come in out of there, Ann!” she says to her nonplussed child. “Before that plane crashes on your head.”
Before she can utter a word in response, little Ann is taken and dragged indoors, leaving the doctor with the lasting image of the tot being pulled in one direction but with her face turned in the other, gazing with wonder at the plane that will summarily obliterate her unless she takes this evasive action. Doctor Lewis, meanwhile, thinks to himself that there exists a chance of the fear of Ann’s mother being realised, but that it is a slim chance.
For many contemporary artists of the cinema the slim and, in the real world, highly unlikely amounts to everyday fare. Their productions thrive on moments of completely unexpected mayhem. These incidents are crucial in pushing the narratives along, as if their authors are convinced that unless they keep audiences on tenterhooks they will lose interest; effectively, interest can be fomented in no other way.
The late, vaunted Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski, and many who came after him, might have had a field day with the premise of a little girl in a garden upon whom a plane drops with all the malicious grace of a lead balloon. Of course, stranger things have been known to happen in the world, but they do not happen every day. We would not stop hearing about them in the tabloid media if they did.
The process of watching any film presupposes a willingness on the part of the viewer to suspend disbelief for the duration of the show, be it a short film or a feature; if you peek over your shoulder at the projectionist booth it can seen clearly enough that the pictures bouncing off the wall opposite are merely plays of shadow and light after all.
But is there a point where the suspension of disbelief tacitly expected could be considered over the top? Where pure coincidence and the ‘slim’ get so out of hand that the result becomes ridiculous? Coincidence resides but a short block from contrivance.
What, for that matter, does the propensity for such narratives say about the world views of the artists who conjure them and our world in general? Does liberty not stand a chance or must we live our lives in perennial fear, speculating like Ann about the possible bad hand to be dealt by any large object glimpsed up there in the endless sky? Were liberty to slip on the gloves in one corner of the ring, blind chance do the same in the other, and the pair then go ten rounds who would emerge victorious?
Round One / Kieslowski – the taxi-driver I butcher today might
Krzysztof Kieslowski began his career as a documentary film-maker, a spirit that infuses some of his earliest feature films, beginning with the entertaining Camera Buff (1979), one of the works that helped bring his name to international audiences. By the time that same career wound down in the mid-1990s – shortly before his death in 1994 at the age of 54 – he had become a darling of the art house cinema crowd. Films such as The Double Life of Véronique (1991) and the Three Colours Trilogy (1993 – 94), with which he retired, cemented his status.
But there is evidence to suggest he was not especially content with this acclaim or the trio of films that preceded his retirement. He could no longer stand to be on film sets, he was reported as saying around the time of the shooting of the trilogy. This dispiritedness shows through. In years to come the Polish director may well be best remembered for Blue, White and Red. This would be a shame because, as interesting and watchable as each of these films is in its own right, they are not his best efforts.
In large part the dispiritedness of their maker could be said to be a dispiritedness of theme. The scene for all three is set by a chance encounter between a distressed protagonist and a sympathetic other. Blue is the story of Julie. After the death of her husband and child in a car accident (how often car mishaps feature in modern fiction films!) she wants nothing more to do with the world. But the appearance of the empathetic one is pivotal and results in her slow, if reluctant, return to the fray.
Some of the action of White occurs in Poland as we bear witness to the misadventures of the hapless Karol, recently bankrupted following his divorce from his cold French wife. The ‘other’ in this instance is a fellow Pole, himself an émigre, who hires Karol to commit a murder.
Valentine, in Red, is a university student and part-time model. One night while driving around town (yep, those cars are at it again!) she collars a dog. Full of remorse, she tracks down the animal’s owner, a former judge who has spent his retirement in retreat from the world in a massive house.
Viewers coming to the trilogy not knowing any of Kieslowski’s previous work may not think to do this, but those who do so with more than merely a passing acquaintance with the director’s oeuvre will almost inevitably seize at once on the themes of chance and predestination. Had the family in Blue not stopped to pick up the hitchhiker, for instance, the ensuing tragedy might not have occurred, they may think. Had Karol not met his fellow Pole, had Valentine not run over the poor mutt … The scenarios are many.
If they did think accordingly, it would be easy to forgive them for doing so. Kieslowski, you see, has practically founded a career upon such themes. In his hands the highly abstract concept of fate has been dealt with in a very concrete way, going back years. Long before the trilogy it became his raison d’être as a film-maker.
The thematic groundwork for the director’s final films lies way back. But first let’s consider The Double Life of Véronique. In the dual role of Weronika and Véronique, Irene Jacob gives her all, as she does playing Valentine in the later Red. Her warmth and dedication is one reason both films remain eminently viewable and do not slip the bounds into the ‘too arty or artificial for their own good’ category – a risk Kieslowski runs throughout.
Weronika is a singer. Véronique, her double, is an aspiring singer. Both intuit that they are not alone in the world. Though they have never met they share the same losses and the same health. Weronika dies and Véronique stops taking singing lessons. A flesh and blood link between them is a puppeteer – an apt symbol in the Kieslowskian universe.
The thought that each and every one of us has an exact double somewhere in the world is a sobering one when presented thus. In such a framework it may almost be regarded as a double whammy. Isn’t one ‘us’ enough for the puppeteer to jiggle at the end of his strings? Must we have a carbon copy manipulated the same in another pocket of the globe?
Returning to the films made in Poland, the English language rendering of the title of one is Blind Chance (1987). As confining as it is, in this film there is a certain freshness to the treatment of the themes of free choice and fate. They are explored not as opposites – as indeed they should not be – but somehow blended. Even if we are correct in believing we can choose between different possibilities, isn’t life such that whichever one we select we are destined to confront similar outcomes and problems? Are the three choices explored in this film really so different? Is the evidently ‘bad’ choice so bad after all?
In stark contrast, choice would appear to be a luxury not on the table for a number of the crew who inhabit the bleak landscapes that define the backdrop of the director’s Decalogue (1989) series. Blackest of all is his A Short Film About Killing (1988), which subsequently gained release in a feature-length version.
Jacek, an intentional bringer of misery to nearly all who cross his path, is planning skulduggery on a major scale on the wintry day when the action begins. Glimpses of the life of this miscreant are intercut with potted portraits of Waldemar, a middle-aged taxi-driver. Nor is he exactly sympathetic. While he meticulously prepares food for a dog (though one might wonder what precisely is in the concoction he throws the canine), he callously disdains a would-be fare in favour of someone else, leaving the overlooked pair standing frustrated and freezing in the bitter cold.
An interesting scene takes place in a coffee shop. While Jacek sits at one table surreptitiously road testing his weapon of choice – a length of rope – at another sits Piotr. He is a lawyer, the very same who will represent Jacek when he later goes on trial. Similar scenes of ‘swallowtailing’ will recur in Kieslowski’s work from here on, enhancing their claustrophobic feel. Yes, we may actually, unknowingly, sit within yards of our future defence counsel a relatively short time before meeting the man, but the coincidence still seems extraordinary.
Just as many serial killers have no particular victim/s in mind when they go on their sprees, neither does Jacek. He is going to kill a cabbie and steal his car, come what may; the identity of the cabbie is unimportant. But for the purposes of our tale that, of course, is not so. The one who makes the fateful choice to invite the young Grim Reaper into the back of his vehicle is none other than callous Waldemar.
Kieslowski allows his camera to linger long on Waldemar’s demise. Garrotting fails to do the job so the increasingly panicked Jacek (no natural born killer is he) resorts to bludgeoning his victim to death. One would imagine Hitchcock, had he lived long enough, would have greatly appreciated these scenes. Never in a million years would he have passed such sustained graphic brutality by the American censor. More of the same comes near the end of the film when the state snuffs out Jacek’s life; they are far more accomplished at garrotting than he proved to be.
The ‘if’ questions that might arise from this are the same ones that spring up in conjunction with his later work. For all the good that positing them does. Rather like asking about one’s own life, ‘Oh, if I’d taken this road rather than that on such and such a day … !’ But whichever way you proceed in a microcosm like Kieslowski’s you still feel tightly bound, worked on like a puppet. Not a pleasant feeling. The later films, leaving aside their more lavish production values, all riff on the same themes while failing to add much that is new to the discussion. No wonder the man was fed up to the back teeth.
This round to blind chance! One nil.