Monday, July 23, 2012

Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy: Beautiful Surfaces and Weak Writing

Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy received universal critical acclaim when it came out in 1993 and 1994. I saw it at that time and really liked Blue and Red but thought White was a bit slow. It’s strange how time can change your view of certain films. Sometimes when you watch an acclaimed movie in your 20’s you give it the benefit of the doubt, or you're just charmed by its style and you don't worry too much about its substance. But when you come back to it two decades later you’ve reached a point of knowing enough to say with confidence that the film doesn't stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Such was the case here…because when I recently re-watched all three parts of this trilogy, White seemed the best of them, Red seemed merely OK and Blue seemed to fail on a number of levels.

Blue (5 out of 10)

The first 10 minutes are very powerful: Julie (Juliette Binoche) is in a car-crash in which she loses her composer husband and her daughter. I like it when films grab you with a tragic event right at the beginning; it drags you into the story and makes you empathise. But Kieslowski squanders that lead by having her mope around in drippy, arthouse-cliché style for the rest of the story. I’m being mean perhaps. She’s grieving and in shock. What’s she supposed to do, jump around singing? But if there’s a problem in depicting grief on film - because characters that are numb and want to shut out the world don’t make for good cinema - it’s up to the film-makers to try to solve it, and the makers of Blue don’t. (By way of contrast, look at The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; it was a film about someone totally numb and shut out from the world, yet it was riveting.)

Julie doesn’t want to interact for long periods of this story so there are few conversations, and even those which do take place are muted ones. So this film never gets out of first gear, never comes alive: that’s one big problem. Another is the nature of her interactions with others. Two of her main relationships - with a female sex worker she befriends in her apartment building, and a man who’s in love with her and also finishing her late husband’s musical work - don’t make much sense. The characters seem to alternate between being kind and unkind to each other with no logical pattern and in inverse proportion to the stimulus. (And the former relationship is hardly developed at all anyway; it seems there only to give the film a chance to pay a visit to a red light district). Then there’s the young guy who witnessed the crash and tracks her down via her doctor (how does he know who her doctor is? It’s a mystery!) He tries to give her back a necklace he stole from the crash scene and she doesn’t even care that he took it. If this were an ordinary film, not the swansong of ‘The Great Kieslowski’, critics would be all over it, saying how bad the writing is. The relationship Julie has with her husband’s mistress, now pregnant with his child, was better. I was engaged in that at least. It wasn’t enough, though.

There’s also a peculiar repeated motif in the film: dramatic music rushes up on the soundtrack, the screen goes blank and then after a pause we return to the same scene as before. I don’t know why Kieslowski used it because it happens at random and doesn’t seem to be doing anything or mean anything. And lastly a point about the music: I’m no classical expert but I know that there are beautiful melodies in the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Faure, Paganini, Saint-Saens, Satie and many others. I also know that there is a lot of classical music - like Bach’s interminable Passions or most of what’s in Verdi and Wagner’s operas - that we’re told is great by the ‘experts’, but which is in fact pompous and tiresome. Unfortunately the musical work that is the focus of the story here tends more toward the latter. It’s supposed to have been commissioned by the European Union and is to be played simultaneously in 12 European cities, and that’s appropriate enough: it sounds like a bureaucrat’s idea of good music, something fit for a boring official occasion. Maybe that was in fact the intention, but it doesn’t make it any easier to listen to.

White (7 ½ out of 10)

In White, largely set in Poland, I started to wonder a lot about Kieslowski’s feelings towards France and the rich West, his possible resentment of it. In Blue he’d already taken one very privileged French character and given her the worst possible tragedy to deal with. Here he starts off with a French woman (Julie Delphy) divorcing and humiliating her Polish husband. He still loves her and schemes to get her back but in doing so he enacts a very strange and bitter revenge on her. The theme of this film is ‘equality’ and it seems that by that Kieslowski and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz just mean ‘French characters and Polish ones should be equal in their misery’.

The only Eastern European I’ve ever known well was a Romanian woman who gave me an idea of what life under communism was like: living in fear of a bizarrely illogical justice system, never trusting strangers because they might be an informer, and so on. One only has to look at the general thrust of these first two parts and consider how any human feels if they’re forced to live in horrible circumstances whilst others nearby are rich and safe and spoiled, to see how this trilogy might be interpreted as Kieslowski’s rather acerbic ‘love letter’ to his adopted country, France. I wondered as I watched White if Kieslowski felt bitter about having to live most of his life in communist Poland and if he felt confused now to be in charge of glamorous French actresses like Binoche, Delphy and Irene Jacob and a glamorous French film trilogy.

I’m someone who’s psychologically predisposed to favour the underdog and those who have suffered (for one thing I know what it’s like to lose both parents by the time you’re 24, a rather Dickensian fact of my life which few people in the 21st century can relate to) so I should be inclined to be on Kieslowski’s side. But let’s face it, it’s a cast-iron rule of the world that the less you have the less people will give you a chance, and vice-versa; being associated with tragedy or depressing political systems wins you no friends. So in that same spirit I’m not going to indulge Kieslowski and Piesiewicz just because of where they came from. I have to say quite unequivocally that the script of Blue is weak, and the script of White, whilst much better (it has a plot, in fact it has several plots) has a frustrating, unrealistic ending. Whilst agreeably poetic in a way it’s a complete writer’s contrivance that leaves you saying things like ‘But why on earth would she….? Why doesn’t she just….? How come she changed so quickly from …to …?’

Red (6 out of 10)

Time Out film critic Geoff Andrew said of Red: “the central drama is the electrifying encounter between Valentine and the judge… Stunningly beautiful, powerfully scored and immaculately performed, the film is virtually flawless, and one of the very greatest cinematic achievements of the last few decades." Of course it’s nothing of the sort. Geoff Andrew often talks nonsense, but then he’s not the only one who has been in raptures over this film. I’ll give him ‘immaculately performed’ at least but the rest is guff : there’s nothing ‘electrifying‘ about the film, and once again the writing is sub-par. Jean-Louis Trintignant as a strange old judge and Irene Jacob as Valentine, a fashion model, are good but they don’t have enough to work on. In fact I really liked the initial set up of this film and followed the story with interest as Jacob’s car hits the judge’s dog and she brings the animal to him, then learns of his spying on his neighbors. But gradually this realistic narrative peters out, to be replaced by…well, nothing much. This time the theme is fraternity and as with Blue- where the theme was liberty - the writers are too busy making events fit their schematic pattern and forget to write a story that would actually engage the viewer.

Here are just a few of its weaknesses: 1) the judge gets himself arrested just to see how Jacob will react when she reads about it in the paper. Yeah, right…2) There is an alternative storyline - a man is jilted by his lover and spies on her with her new lover- and it’s cleverly intertwined with the Irene Jacob story, but these lovers say virtually nothing, so there’s no emotional involvement for the audience and for a long time it’s more perplexing than anything else. 3) The judge at the end tells a story from his own life which exactly mirrors the story of the man in this alternative storyline, which is tantalizing, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark. Is that man the judge when he was young? What exactly is going on here? Unfortunately the film is too coy to give us a straight answer. 4) Worst of all, the story simply doesn’t have much tension or narrative thrust. Without those things, few dramas can succeed.

No doubt someone will come along to tell me that the pleasures of this trilogy are ‘subtle’ ones that I obviously don’t get because I’ve been corrupted by American films into needing things spelled out for me. But it’s funny how people who say such things can never articulate what exactly those pleasures are. I don’t think those people are lying when they say they enjoy the likes of Blue or L’Aventurra or Andrei Rublev but I think they’re too embarrassed to try explaining it because that would mean revealing how extremely subjective their reaction is, to the point where they could have had the same reaction gazing at a place-mat on a dinner-table. Just as when people have an epiphany looking at a vase in a museum or a Rothko painting, the value isn’t inherent in the piece itself. The Time Out Film Guide - by Geoff Andrew and his disciples - suffers from the same problem; that’s why so many of its reviews make you go ‘Really?? You had that reaction whilst watching that film? Are you kidding me?’

I did really enjoy the last five minutes of Red when there’s a disaster (finally, some real drama!) and we see again the main characters from all three films. It’s also contrived, you could say, but in a pleasing way. I concluded that these final moments and the first ten minutes of Blue were the only truly great moments in the trilogy. In between are five or so hours of mostly forgettable movie, but if you could keep that beginning and that end, cut out most of Blue, half of Red and some of White and interweave the three strands better- with the main characters briefly meeting and talking to each other at odd times- then you’d have the making of a really good 2 ½ or 3 hour movie.


As I get older, far from 'learning to appreciate' arthouse slowness, I'm actually getting more and more suspicious of films like Blue and Red where characters never vary the tone or volume of their voice, and the basic sound pattern is long pause/monotone utterance/long pause/monotone utterance. I've realised that if a film gets a rave from the likes of Time Out, Film Comment or the Cannes Film Festival there's at best a 50/50 chance it's a decent movie; it's just as likely to be stupefyingly uninspired nonsense. I haven't yet seen a Bela Tarr film, even though I've read much about them, because even the trailers for his movies test my patience. I've seen most of Tarkovsky's films - in earlier days when I thought it was my duty as a fan of world cinema - but to be honest the only one I really enjoyed was the only one with a proper storyline, his first feature, Ivan's Childhood (1962). I've seen one of Theo Angelopoulos' films, and after suffering through Ulysses' Gaze - three hours of Harvey Keitel looking haggard and saying nothing - I'm disinclined to see many more, despite some critics claiming that he's made multiple masterpieces. Life's just too short for 'art' which is so self-indulgent it refuses to meet the viewer even half-way.

It has to be said that Kieslowski’s films, whilst not as boring and pointless as most works by Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos, et al do sometimes suffer from that same deadly arthouse poison: a feeling of being locked in a room with a grumpy old man who says he has something very important to tell you but won’t tell you what it is, until finally you grow so exasperated with his poor communication skills that you give up. Watching this trilogy might lead you to believe Continental European people are all wonderfully inscrutable, philosophical types but in fact any Continentals I’ve ever met are quite similar to Americans or British or anyone else; they’re decent earnest people or they’re harmless idiots or they’re obnoxious assholes. They're like the teenagers in Show Me Love or Giuletta Masina in La Strada or the people in the Dardenne Brothers’ films, not statuesque ciphers like Monica Vitti in L’Aventurra, Delphine Seyrig in Last Year at Marienbad and Juliette Binoche in Blue. You might say that such people do exist, and so are legitimate subjects for a film: I'd say they're fine as minor characters but to make such ciphers the main focus is to provoke inevitable dissatisfaction in the viewer.

And I hope it's clear to any discerning fan of world cinema that Kieslowski is not in the same league as Ingmar Bergman or Francois Truffaut or Michael Haneke, great directors who can really tell a story and bring characters to life. I’m not basing that opinion on just the Three Colours Trilogy. The Dekalog series of 10 one-hour films he made in Poland is a pretty joyless experience. Yes, I put myself through watching all 10 of them at one time. Never again! (Only the two films that were later developed into the features A Short Film about Love and A Short Film about Killing have anything of interest in them). And I recently re-watched The Double Life of Veronique as well, and was surprised at how formless and underwritten it was.

Many people watch a lot of movies but avoid foreign films. It’s a shame that if they try to dip a toe into the water of foreign films, it may well be something like this trilogy that they go to first. On the surface it looks so alluring. It’s sophisticated and full of European chic, and Binoche, Delphy and Jacob are at their most beautiful, hair and clothes styled to within an inch of their lives. But that’s the problem. There’s nothing but style. In fact it’s the same issue that bedeviled Antonioni’s films in the early 60’s or La Dolce Vita or Last Year at Marienbad; they’re interesting as fashion-shows and for capturing beautiful faces, and they show some nice landscapes or décor or architecture, but that’s about all. If people fall for that and like them it only encourages more bad film-making. If people react against them, they may generalise their impressions and think all European films are just as bad.

In the end, what’s the point of pointing out these weaknesses? Well, it’s simply to say that we should not be fooled by foreign films with weak writing just because they’re from a ‘name’ director and look cool. We should be aware that, like the world of modern art, with its Tracey Emin beds and Damien Hirst cows, film criticism really has some mind-boggling cases of Emperor's New Clothes-ism. We should not be overly impressed by so-called ‘elliptical’ films; the ellipses are usually just an excuse for the screenwriters to not do their job properly. And we should instead concentrate our greatest praise on those foreign films that are well-written and inventive and which engage with human dramas, like the recent films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, for example. Amelie, A Very Long Engagement and Mic-Macs: now that’s a proper trilogy!

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