early career, most of it in documentaries, barely hints at the glories to come. The man who made The Principles of Safety and Hygiene in a Copper Mine, fine work though that undoubtedly was, had a long path to tread before he arrived at A Short Film About Killing, one of the least hygienic movies ever made, let alone at The Double Life of Véronique, one of the most baffling and beautiful."
His latest film, Blue, is the first in a trilogy whose titles refer to the French tricolor, and to the declared aims of the Revolution—“Blue” for liberty, “White” for equality, “Red” for fraternity. It sounds like a pasty mix of the pompous and the schematic, but don’t worry: Kieslowski couldn’t make a predictable movie if he tried. Blue is indeed about liberty, but if you’re hoping for Gérard Depardieu to come bursting out of the Bastille with a ripped shirt, tough luck. Kieslowski is merely curious about the fate of a noble ideal: what has it dwindled into, two centuries on? He deals with an ironic and very particular sort of freedom—the sort that comes from having your family wiped out in a car wreck. Julie (Juliette Binoche) is travelling with her husband, a celbrated composer, and their young daughter, Anna, when their Alfa Romeo hits a tree. The violence of the event is not exhausted: some of it spills over into Julie, and one of her first actions on waking up in the hospital is to carry on the bad work by smashing a window. Kieslowski’s movies are often touched by grief, but you never get the sense of a peaceful aftermath, of anything—or, indeed, anyone—being laid to rest. Current wisdom may urge the bereaved to pick up the pieces and start gluing, but Julie couldn’t give a damn about rebuilding her old life; she wants a new one, and fast.
For a start, the family home in the country is to be cleared out and sold. “Why are you crying?” Julie asks the housekeeper. “Because you’re not”comes the reply. Julie calls a friend, Olivier (Benoit Régent), asks him to come around, tells him to undress, sleeps with him, and says goodbye: “I’m like any other woman. I sweat. I cough. I have cavities. You won’t miss me.” It’s a great speech, and a false hope: Julie is about as forgettable as Cleopatra, and however fiercely she dreams of a clean slate, the past will always return to scrawl unwanted messages all over it. She moves into an apartment in Paris, for instance, and reverts to her maiden name, but Olivier tracks her down. She throws the score of her husband’s unfinished concerto into a garbage truck, but somebody has already made a copy, and anyway there are rumors that she herself composed it, and could thus complete the work in her own time. Lastly, she discovers that he had a mistress, who is now carrying his child.
Whether all these incidents amount to a plot is debatable. Yet the film presses on as if there were a race to be run, or a great wrong avenged. As Julie struggles to pull away from the world, it yanks her back, and the tension between them hums like a wire. Sometimes, the edge of the frame is darkly filtered—you can sense fate coming down like a fog—but elsewhere
Kieslowski switches to a handheld camera, running it along behind his characters as if he were still making documentaries and Paris were just another copper mine. Though anything less like a thriller would be hard to imagine, Blue is the only really frightening movie I’ve seen all year. One night, Julie looks down from her window and sees a man being beaten up in the street. He flees into her building and starts to bang on doors, working his way up toward her floor. You brace yourself for the knock, as she does; but Kieslowski makes you wait, and when it comes he turns the volume up full.
Moments like this blur the line between mainstream technique and the supposed concerns of art-house cinema—a boring distinction, in any case. Kieslowski is far more gutsy than cerebral: what you take away from Blue is not an intellectual pose but the slam of a piano lid, the scrape of knuckles against a stone wall, and the sight of Julie plunging into a deserted swimming pool—as echoing and scary as the one in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, with shadows rippling on the walls. Above all, there is a series of shock blackouts, matched by thunderous orchestral chords, attacking the screen out of nowhere. These can happen anyplace—in the pool, in a café, in the midst of a conversation—and when they are over, the camera returns to exactly where it was, as if time had stopped dead to allow for a rush of memory.
The movie hardly leaves Juliette Binoche alone for a minute, but she thrives on the attention. That round, milky face is so pure and serious, so thrifty with its shows of feeling, that directors seem to grow impatient with it, and even resort to violence in an effort to force a reaction. In Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (a chaotic but remarkable movie by Léos Carax), she was ravaged by eye disease; and in her previous—and worst—picture, Damage, she had her head banged against the floor by Jeremy Irons. It was typical of that movie’s crass erotic chic that she was supposed to enjoy this; Louis Malle put her through soulless routines, like a sex doll, and in return he got a blankly bored performance. In Blue, too, she starts off bruised and black-eyed, stiff in a neck brace, but slowly the movie brings her back to life, and she comes up fighting.
There’s nothing very grand about this. Being a Kieslowski heroine, Julie tends to drop things and make snap decisions, and she’s easily distracted by trivia—but then so is Kieslowski himself, almost all the time. He is taken aback by the vagaries of human nature, and if there is an urgency about his films it comes from the need to get that surprise across. The result is an odd marriage of brooding and slapstick, unique to Kieslowski but also alarmingly true to the on-off rhythms by which most of us live. I have seen The Double Life of Véronique four or five times now, and although there are plenty of things that don’t make sense, I don’t really mind—if anything, they become indispensable, like the maddening
quirks of a friend. At key moments, both Julie and Véronique turn out their handbags, offering the private chaos of lipstick and photographs and candy wrappers as the clearest guide to the state of their souls. They could well be right.
All of which makes some people feel like Lady Bracknell: What on earth is all this fuss about handbags? Why doesn’t this funny Polish guy just tell us what he means? But Kieslowski has spent long enough in a police state to acquire a thorough distrust of any movie, or poem, or play, that hustles its audience toward an agreed conclusion. His work radiates
intensity, yet flickers with casual happenings; I feel more herded and browbeaten by Oliver Stone. Every moral that one tries to draw from Blue or The Double Life of Véronique seems an insult to the mysterious, often wordless procedures of Kieslowski’s art. Not even in his Decalogue, a series of TV films shot in Warsaw, and based on the Ten Commandments, did
he raise his voice. “We just treated the Commandments as a set of rules,” he explained, “which allow us to survive from day to day without breaking each other’s necks.” Critics back in Poland have lamented this political indifference, but Kieslowski seems to me an exquisitely political artist, precisely because of his refusal to be sententious and his curiosity about everything that eludes political control. No wonder his movies are so sexy, so blue: the bed is a free country.
Republished recently in Nobody's Perfect : Writings from the New Yorker.
Westminster, MD, USA: Knopf Publishing Group, 2003.