BLIND CHANCE: THE CINEMA OF KRZYSZTOF KIESLOWSKI
(& THE POSTHUMOUS KIESLOWSKI)
September 1 - 27, 2006
Pacific Cinematheque and the Vancouver International Film Centre (the year-round venue established by the Vancouver International Film Festival) have joined forces to bring this landmark Kieslowski retrospective to Vancouver audiences. From the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the eighties (and the international release of his ten-film series on the Ten Commandments) until his death in 1996, this Polish director's reputation grew to the point where he was considered by many the world's finest living filmmaker. His fascination with complex moral choices and occasional moments of transcendence mark him as a creator of spiritual films ranking alongside such masters as Bresson and Tarkovsky: DEKALOG and THREE COLOURS: BLUE have figured prominently in all three of the annual Arts & Faith 100 survey of spiritually significant films, and Robert K. Johnston and Catherine Barsotti opened their marvelous Regent Summer School course "Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes Through the Lens of Contemporary Film" with a viewing of the first of the DEKALOG films (and eventually got round to HEAVEN). Soul Food friend Doug Cummings has written extensively about Kieslowski's films at the Masters Of Cinema website (and is quoted in the catalog for the current retrospective!), and Jeffrey Overstreet counts THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE as his personal favourite KK flick.
Most of these films can be rented at Videomatica, where you may also want to check out I'M SO-SO, a one-hour documentary featuring rare interview clips with Kieslowski which was featured at the 1996 VIFF, but the opportunity to see these on the big screen is a rare privilege - particularly the final four films, made in France, which have particular visual appeal.
The following notes (in green) are edited from the VIFC and Pacific Cinematheque websites, where you will find further information and where you can purchase advance tickets for all shows.
BLIND CHANCE: THE CINEMA OF KRZYSZTOF KIESLOWSKI
Kieślowski's cinema is known for its social commitment and spiritual questing. His documentaries and early dramas display his desire to address with honesty the social realities behind socialist Poland 's official party line of progress and social unity; official disapproval and censorship were occasionally the result. Like most Polish artists of his time, he was profoundly affected by growing up in a Communist state, and by the rise of the Solidarity opposition movement during the labour unrest of 1980 and the consequent imposition of martial law in 1981. His later works reveal an increasing fascination with the mysterious roles of chance, choice, coincidence and fate, culminating in the moody, strangely metaphysical quartet of films (Véronique and the “Three Colours Trilogy”) that he made in France before his untimely and unexpected death. (Kieślowski underwent heart bypass surgery in Warsaw in March 1996, and suffered a fatal heart attack shortly after the operation. One of his last foreign trips was to Vancouver for a tribute at the 1994 VIFF.)
Kieślowski’s big breakthrough came in the waning days of the Communist era, when his 10-part magnum opus The Decalogue, began astonishing audiences and critics on the international festival circuit. Throughout his career Kieślowski was a humanist with a deeply pessimistic stripe, an artist fascinated with the inner life of human beings, with the spiritual dimensions of existence, with the deeper truths hidden beneath the surface realities, with the ethical and moral dilemmas faced by individuals as actors in a family, in a society, in a state, in life.
This exhibition, the first major co-presentation between Pacific Cinémathèque and the new Vancouver International Film Centre, offers a near-comprehensive retrospective of Kieślowski’s cinema, and includes many short films, documentaries and early features never before seen in Vancouver. The series will be accompanied by an exhibition of Kieślowski’s photographs in the atrium of the Vancouver International Film Centre.
THE SCAR 1976
September 5, 9:30pm VIFC
September 6, 7:15pm at PCP
CAMERA BUFF 1979
Sept 1, 9:30pm VIFC
September 15, 7:30pm at PCP
BLIND CHANCE (1981)
September 3, 7:00pm at VIFC
September 4, 7:15pm at PCP
Chance and fate loom large in Kieślowski’s metaphysical cinema. In the bold Blind Chance, a young medical student named Witek (Boguslaw Linda) rushes to catch a train—and, in the film’s innovative, Sliding Doors-style narrative, faces three possible destinies. One, he catches the train, meets an honest Communist, and becomes a Party activist himself. Two, he bumps into a policeman, gets arrested, and winds up a dedicated anti-Communist dissident. Three, he misses the train, meets a young woman, gets married, and settles down to a happy and avowedly apolitical life. (As Time Out’s Adrian Turner notes, “A fourth story, in which Poland throws out the Communist Party, was presumably unthinkable” at the time.) Witek’s possible futures were obviously meant to represent Poland’s. Blind Chance was completed in 1981, the year martial law was imposed; shelved by the authorities, it was not released until 1987. “Vividly rendered. The film is more aesthetically rich than Kieślowski ’s previous features—[with] virtuoso tracking shots, striking images of violence, careful compositions, and camera movements which blur the line between subjective and objective points of view” (Doug Cummings, Senses of Cinema).
NO END (1984)
September 3, 9:30pm at VIFC
September 16, 7:30pm, at PCP
Kieślowski’s poignant political ghost story is something of a precursor to Three Colours: Blue, and marks the auspicious first pairing of the director with screenwriting partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a trial lawyer who would co-write all of Kieślowski’s subsequent films. A young lawyer, killed in a car crash while in midst of defending a Solidarity activist on trial under martial law, is a ghostly presence watching helplessly as his widow dissolves in grief and his former client is encouraged to compromise his principles in order to avoid jail. The film’s pessimistic take on matters political and spiritual managed to offend the Church, the Communist state, and the Solidarity opposition—as Kieślowski would note, “I’ve never had such unpleasantness over any film as I had over this one”—but the public loved it, once they got a chance to see it. No End was also Kieślowski’s first film with composer Zbigniew Preisner, and his last feature before his monumental The Decalogue. “A film burning with passionate engagement... And one, moreover, which still has space for tenderness, quiet, and an excursion into the realm of the spirit” —Chris Peachment, Time Out
A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE (1988)
September 1, 7:30pm at VIFC
September 16, 9:35pm at PCP
The splendid A Short Film About Love is one of two Krzysztof Kieślowski features that were expanded versions of episodes from his 10-part magnum opus The Decalogue (A Short Film About Killing was the other). Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko), a virginal 19-year-old postal worker in Warsaw, spies by telescope on Magda (Grażyna Szapołowska), an attractive, sexually active 30-year-old who lives in the apartment block opposite. The surveillance leads to infatuation, and then to inappropriate demonstrations of affection, but the youth gets rather more than he bargained for when formidable Magda starts to return his attentions. Kieślowski’s darkly ironic yet deeply romantic tale of intimacy, obsession and voyeurism recalls Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and features notable performances from its two leads. The film not only expands Decalogue Six (“Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery”) but adds an entirely different ending, resulting in a substantially altered work. (A Short Film About Killing is much more faithful to the hour-long original from which it derives.) “Kieślowski turns in an absolutely masterly movie that yields equal parts of humour and wry emotional truth. As an account of love in the late 20th century, it’s in a league of its own” (Tony Rayns)
A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING (1987)
September 5, 7:30pm at VIFC
September 2, 7:30pm at PCP
Back in 1990, Pacific Cinémathèque selected Krzysztof Kieślowski’s morally troubling masterpiece as one of the ten best films of the 1980s. English critic Derek Malcolm cites A Short Film About Killing as one of the 100 greatest movies ever made, remarking that “While it is impossible to conceive of Kieślowski making a bad film...in Killing, style and content were perfectly matched.” In a random act of violence, an aimless youth brutally murders a cab driver. He then faces execution by the state, while his young lawyer, fresh out of school, struggles to find any defence for the crime. A feature-length expansion of an episode from Kieślowski’s Decalogue (Decalogue 5: Thou Shalt Not Kill), Killing was co-written with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a lawyer who was Kieślowski’s screenwriting partner on every film from 1984’s No End onward (the two met while Kieślowski was researching jail sentences imposed under martial law). The film was a sensation at Cannes in 1988, and helped bring about a moratorium on the death penalty in Poland. “A shattering film...Shot by Slawomir Idziak through a range of filters that give Warsaw the look of a city of pestilence” (Tony Rayns). “Intense, original...If Hitchcock had filmed Dostoevsky, this would be the result” (Variety).
DECALOGUE 1: I AM THE LORD THY GOD
DECALOGUE 2: THOU SHALT NOT TAKE THE NAME OF THY LORD IN VAIN
September 8, 7:00pm VIFC
September 11, 7:00pm VIFC
In Decalogue 1 (“I Am the Lord Thy God”), a university professor believes that the world can be understood through rational, mathematical thought. With their new computer as god and witness, he and his young son calculate that it’s safe to skate on a just-frozen pond, but such “false gods” provide little comfort when tragedy strikes. The great actress Krystyna Janda (Man of Iron) stars in Decalogue 2 as a young woman who presents her mortally ill husband’s doctor with a dilemma that forces him towards violating the second commandment.
DECALOGUE 3: HONOUR THE SABBATH DAY
DECALOGUE 4: HONOUR THY MOTHER AND FATHER
September 8, 9:30pm VIFC
September 11, 9:30pm VIFC
“Honour the Sabbath Day” is the loose theme of Decalogue 3, which follows Eve, who appears at the home of her former lover on Christmas Eve and asks him to help find her missing husband. Traipsing through Warsaw’s deserted streets, they look for this phantom man, but are haunted by their former love. In Decalogue 4, Kieślowski’s subtle investigation of what truly makes a parent-child relationship, a young acting student opens a letter not meant for her and discovers a secret that makes it difficult to “Honour Thy Father and Thy Mother.”
DECALOGUE 5: THOU SHALT NOT KILL
DECALOGUE 6: THOU SHALT NOT COMMIT ADULTERY
September 9, 7:00pm VIFC
September 12, 7:00pm VIFC
“The most unsettling and riveting of his moral series” — Hollywood Reporter, Decalogue 5 tackles the complexities of the Fifth Commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Two killings concern Kieślowski here: the murder of a taxi driver by a frustrated, confused young man, and the execution of the young man by the state. A gripping study of the moral quicksand of the death penalty, the film was later re-edited and presented as A Short Film About Killing. Its polar opposite, Decalogue 6 may be based on the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery,” but its true theme is obsession. A young man is in love with the sexually active, much older woman across the way, and even takes a job as a milkman just to hear her voice asking him a question; it was adapted into A Short Film About Love
DECALOGUE 7: THOU SHALT NOT STEAL
DECALOGUE 8: THOU SHALT NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS
September 9, 9:30pm VIFC
September 12, 9:30pm VIFC
Two women fight for “ownership” of a six-year-old girl in Decalogue 7, “Thou Shalt Not Steal.” A study of family relationships and lies, the film features Boguslaw Linda (Blind Chance). A guest gives an ethics professor’s class its most difficult dilemma yet, one based on the teacher’s own past, in Decalogue 8, “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness.” Dealing with the shelter of Jewish refugees during World War II, this section is Kieślowski’s most pointed reference to the effects of the Holocaust
DECALOGUE 9: THOU SHALT NOT COVET THY NEIGHBOUR’S WIFE
DECALOGUE 10: THOU SHALT NOT COVET THY NEIGHBOUR’S GOODS
September 10, 7:00pm VIFC
September 13, 7:00pm VIFC
Once a philandering Romeo but now an impotent man, devastated Roman agrees to allow his wife to take another lover, a decision with predictably ruinous results, in Decalogue 9, “Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour’s Wife.” Bringing The Decalogue to a satirical close, the darkly comic Decalogue 10, “Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour’s Goods,” stars Zbigniew Zamachowski and Jerzy Stuhr, who would later reunite in Kieślowski’s Three Colours: White. They play estranged brothers who, upon jointly inheriting their father’s valuable stamp collection, immediately become obsessed with keeping it from each other.
STILL ALIVE–A Film About Krzysztof Kieslowski (2006)
September 10, 9:30pm VIFC
September 13, 9:30pm VIFC
Director: Maria Zmarz Koczanowicz
NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE
Still Alive— A Film About Krzysztof Kieślowski is a beautifully made and completely engrossing feature-length retrospective portrait of Kieślowski by one of the director’s former students, now one of Poland’s finest documentary filmmakers. Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz uses the late director’s own words, fragments of films, and scraps of memories kept by his friends and colleagues to create an absorbing portrait of a man who continues to live through his cinema. Loved and admired, Kieślowski was a filmmaker’s filmmaker. As he says in the film: “Cinema is about drudgery. It is about getting up early, about not sleeping at night, about fretting, about rain...This is cinema, this is real cinema. And the moments of satisfaction happen seldom.”
THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VÉRONIQUE (1991)
September 14, 7:15pm VIFC
September 22, 7:30pm PCP
Irène Jacob won Best Actress honours at Cannes in 1991 for her double role in The Double Life of Véronique, the haunting, seductive metaphysical fable that was Polish master Krzysztof Kieślowski’s feature follow-up to The Decalogue. “Two physically identical girls, living in Poland and France, are mysteriously linked in numerous respects. Each has a talent for music, each entertains doubts about her current lover, and each has a weak heart. And although they have never met, when Veronika collapses on stage during a recital, Véronique immediately feels that her life has changed in a profound way. Kieślowski may not proffer the lucid moral insights of his earlier Decalogue series, but it’s hard to imagine a more mesmerizing study of spiritual disquiet. If the story is simplicity itself, this is certainly not an easy film, but coherence is assured by Irène Jacob’s luminous performance, by Kieślowski’s effortless control of mood, and by his subtle use of repeated motifs...There’s no denying his compassion or ability to invest places, objects and passing moments with an almost numinous power” (Geoff Andrew, Time Out).
THREE COLOURS: BLUE (1993)
September 14, 9:30pm VIFC
September 23, 7 :30pm at PCP
Blue is the first film in the much-admired Kieślowski trilogy based on the French tricolour flag, and on the French Revolution’s three tenets of Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité. An enigmatic, metaphysical study of liberty, it stars Juliette Binoche as a young woman whose world comes crashing down around her when her composer husband and small daughter are killed in a car accident. In the aftermath of the tragedy, she seizes the opportunity to create a new existence for herself, “free” from the past and its relationships, but her old life proves impossible to simply deny. “Blue is a film of mood and atmosphere, shadow and light, music and gesture. Like all great cinema, it offers up revelations, re-arranging the way we see things. Utilizing the pictorial brilliance of Slowomir Idziak, cinematographer for A Short Film About Killing and The Double Life of Véronique, Blue dazzles with its succinct emotional power, insights and technical genius— culminating, in the final moments, in an overwhelming spiritual climax” (Piers Handling, Toronto I.F.F.).
THREE COLOURS: WHITE (1993)
September 17, 7:15pm VIFC
September 23, 9:25pm at PCP
The second film in Kieślowski’s “Three Colours Trilogy,” the entertaining White is a black comedy based on the tricolour tenet of egalité. Polish actor Zbigniew Zamachowski gives a wonderfully Chaplinesque performance as Karol, a bumbling hairdresser left penniless on the streets of Paris after he is divorced by his beautiful French wife (Julie Delpy). Kieślowski’s unpredictable rags-to-riches tale has Karol returning, in rather ignominious fashion, to his native Poland, where an unexpected aptitude for the prevailing cutthroat capitalism leads to a fantastic scheme to get his ex-wife’s attention. “A droll black comedy that takes a scalpel to the impoverished ethics of the new money-obsessed Poland, and to the selfish impulses tied up with our desires for a balanced sexual relationship, White is at times reminiscent of the satire of the last episode of The Decalogue [which also featured actors Zamachowski and Jerzy Stuhr playing brothers]. It’s often cruel, of course, and cool as an ice-pick, but it’s still endowed with enough unsentimental humanity to end with a touching, lyrical admission of the power of love. Essential viewing” (Geoff Andrew, Time Out).
THREE COLOURS: RED (1994)
September 17, 9:30pm VIFC
September 24, 7:30pm at PCP
Red, the exquisite conclusion of the “Three Colours Trilogy,” proved to be Kieślowski’s final film; the director died unexpectedly in March 1996, at the age of 54, of a heart attack shortly after undergoing bypass surgery. “The last and best film in the trilogy...here all the skills of the director, Krzysztof Kieślowski, are brought into melancholy play. Blind chance or benign fate (according to your point of view) brings Valentine (Irène Jacob), a young model living alone in Geneva, into contact with a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) with a predilection for eavesdropping on telephone conversations. (It’s the most authentic route he can find into the mysteries of human behaviour.) In time Valentine’s repulsion shades into curiosity, and from there into affection. And the movie itself shades from coldness and contrivance into a story as touching and mysterious as anything Kieślowski has ever made. Trintignant’s performance as the misanthropic old man is a portrait of heartbreak, all the more convincing for his character’s last-ditch efforts to mend other hearts. At the end, Kieślowski, too, assumes the mantle of Prospero, magically (and rather absurdly) assembling the trilogy’s main players, and it’s hard to begrudge the master his final flourish” (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker).
September 25, 9:00 pm PCP
September 27, 7:30 pm PCP
Director: Tom Tykwer
Although an exhausted Krzysztof Kieślowski had announced his “retirement” from filmmaking after completing the “Three Colours” trilogy of Blue, White and Red, he was, at the time of his death in 1996, working on a new trilogy – Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, inspired by Dante – with screenwriting collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Only their script for the first was close to completion; this final collaboration between one of cinema’s great screenwriting pairs was brought to the screen in 2002 by Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer. Part moral thriller and part love story, Heaven stars Cate Blanchett as Philippa, an Englishwoman working as a teacher in Turin, Italy. An unlikely terrorist, she is arrested after planting a bomb that kills four innocent people. Giovanni Ribisi is Filippo, an earnest young policeman who is brought into the case as a translator, and who seeks to understand the reasons for her horrible crime. “At times one can feel the conflict between Tykwer’s caffeinated energy and Kieślowski’s philosophical pace, but overall the movie works as an unlikely but effective moral thriller” (Liam Lacey, Globe and Mail). “Against all odds, it’s faithful to the spirit of Kieślowski, and terrifically good” (Tony Rayns, Time Out).
(HELL was featured in the 2005 VIFF, and I seem to recall news that it would be reaching either arthouse cinemas or video shelves sometime in the next few months. Too, I have a vague recollection that another director had begun work on PURGATORY. I'll let you know when I find out - or remember - more.)