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Alex Callinicos


Profane illuminations

(July 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 177, July/August 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Three Colours Trilogy
Dir: Krzysztof Kieslowski

European cinema has been a dull affair these past few years. The survivors of the New Wave which made European film making so exciting in the 1960s have fallen silent, or are producing work way below their best. Once sparkling talents have dimmed, like the Marxist-turned-Buddhist Bernardo Bertolucci. They have had no real successors.

Or so it seemed, until the films of the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski began reaching the West in the late 1980s. They revealed a film maker of the first order, with a highly distinctive and very personal vision of the world.

One way of summing this up is to borrow a remark of the great Marxist critic Walter Benjamin. He said that the Surrealists in Paris between the wars offered ‘profane illuminations’. Their art would take the most banal everyday objects and use them to explore a secret and subversive world of desire.

Kieslowski’s films are full of profane illuminations. Our view of the ordinary world is transfigured by adopting a new perspective (a fatal car journey is filmed from the angle of one of the back wheels) or by the use of light (a ray of sunshine breaking through the clouds transforms a previously dark and dingy room).

Yet while the more radical Surrealists used their illuminations to show the way in which our desires are confined and repressed by an unjust society, Kieslowski’s revelations lead us away from politics into the personal life. This is very clear in Three Colours, the trilogy of films he has just completed, which is devoted to exploring the three great slogans of the great French Revolution – liberty, equality and fraternity. But in each case a political idea is reinterpreted in personal terms.

Thus in Blue, the first and weakest of the three, Julie (Juliette Binoche) reacts to the death of her husband and daughter in a car accident by trying to wipe out the past, and cuts herself off from all human contact. She discovers, however, that the freedom she is seeking in this way is an illusion.

Similarly, equality in White, recently released in Britain, turns out too to concern love. The theme seems to be, as the French saying has it, there is always one who is kissed and one who kisses. The partners to a relationship are never equal: one partner is always more dependent on the relationship than the other.

So White starts with Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a Polish hairdresser living in Paris, being divorced by his beautiful French wife Dominique (Julie Delphy) because he has been impotent ever since they married. He is the dependent one, emotionally and financially. By the end, the roles have been reversed.

In fact the film concentrates on the comic tale of how Karol, destitute and divorced, through a series of adventures and mishaps manages to return to Poland, and to make his fortune. Along the way Kieslowski offers a pitiless portrait of Poland since the fall of Stalinism, a country ruled by Mafia style capitalism, in which we are told several times, ‘224You can buy anything’ (including a corpse, though that has to be imported from Russia).

Karol’s money making is, however, all for love’s sake. He uses his wealth to fake his own death, and thereby to lure Dominique to Poland. It is only now that he can consummate their marriage. He says it’s because he saw her cry at his funeral. I wonder. Maybe money was his problem all along.

All this highlights one difficulty with Kieslowski. The ideas he explores are often, to be frank, banal. But the means he uses to express them can be extraordinary. The bottom line of Blue is really nothing more than that everyone needs love, but the final sequence of the film, which seeks to express this by a series of shots of the main characters through a distorting lens and using a blue filter, is remarkable.

The same problem recurs in Red, due to be released in Britain in the autumn. The idea of fraternity is explored through the relationship between a young model Valentine (Irene Jacob) and an embittered retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

The basic story has been told often enough by Hollywood, and could be summed up as Beautiful Young Thing breathes new life into Grumpy Old Codger. But the central scenes between them are so well done, with first rate performances by both the principals – and especially by Trintignant – that Kieslowski sweeps the audience along with him.

It’s hard not to see the contradiction between the paucity of ideas and the formal brilliance in Kieslowski’s films as a reflection of the experience of Polish intellectuals of his generation. Politically involved in the early 1980s when Solidarnosc was a mass workers’ movement confronting the state, he seems to have become increasingly disillusioned as the decade wore on.

His resulting retreat into the personal (which is now so extreme that he says he will make no more films) is therefore part of a collective tragedy which has denied this most gifted artist access to ideas that could really stimulate and challenge his work.

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