All entries for Saturday 01 December 2007

December 01, 2007

The "Three Colours" Trilogy (Kieslowski, 1993–94)

Final set of random musings:


I’ll confess: I was initially slightly underwhelmed by this. I recall when a friend first watched this and described this as “very arty” – and therefore, every time there was a fade to blue I couldn’t get the idea of a very self-conscious director out of my head. Moreover, the one thing I did to prepare me for the trilogy was to read the blurb on the back of my DVD box, which led me to expect a thorough and overt exploration of “liberty.” So yeah, I think my initial reaction is understandable in that context? Fortunately, the film stuck with me for the entirety of the next day and the more I contemplated it the more I realised I was… well, wrong. Liberty is indeed relevant, but I now understand that Kieslowski deals with the concept in a more subtle, ironic way than I expected (knowing this made me much better prepared for Blanc and Rouge.) Julie seeks liberty through escaping from life itself, believing it to have no meaning – but she’s misguided, for her life does still have meaning, and therefore her escapade leads only to self-entrapment. Kieslowski’s ability to portray her closed mindset by focusing on the most minute of details is extraordinary – I watched a little featurette where he demonstrated the importance of a sugar cube being dipped into coffee and its subsequent reflection of Julie’s desire to forget more important details. La Binoche delivers a magnificently nuanced performance here, full of subtleties that will probably reveal themselves with further viewings. 1993 is an extraordinary year for actress (Hunter! Thompson! Pfeiffer! Bassett! And they’re just the ones that I’ve seen!) but I think I’d probably give Binoche the edge for the year – her work really enhances the beauty of the film as a whole. Of all the characters in the trilogy, I think Julie might be the one that I most relate to in an odd sort of way, and her gradual re-engagement with life fills my heart with a kinda reserved form of glee? Blue-tinted, of course (I love the colour scheme!)


So everything I’ve heard about this trilogy in the past has led me to believe that this is the weakest of the three? Um, WRONG. This is so much more than an off-kilter black comedy, and it contains the trilogy’s most fully-realised characterisation in Karol as well as the character that I have the most affinity for in Mikolaj. It’s absurd, bleak and absolutely charming all at the same time. It also strikes me as the most natural of the three, the most effortlessly-conceived – perhaps this has something to do with the fact that it deals with Polish characters in a Polish setting? Certainly, it engages with the issue of Poland’s transition to capitalism, and I love how the ellipses used in Karol’s rise do much to reflect the (potential) economic fluidity of the years. As for the romantic elements of the story: wow. In none of these films did I really expect what was going to happen next, but I had an inkling here and how wrong was I?! I mean, I can’t be blamed for expecting a reconciliation between Karol and Dominique, can I? Yet Kieslowski actively thwarts that, and in revealing Karol’s financial success as an elaborate plan to strike back at Dominique he masterfully subverts the film’s theme of equality and raises some of the most fascinating questions about our humanity. Does our humiliation really run that deep? Viewing the film in this context colours certain events in a different light entirely – for example, I once saw Karol’s effectively saving the life of Mikolaj as an act of tender fraternity, but knowing what happens later on it’s apparent that it could just be another part of Karol’s grand scheme. This is why I view Karol as the most complex (and successful) character in the entire trilogy – I could spend an age considering his motivations, his ambitions, his beliefs… and Zbigniew Zamachowski does a terrific job of internalising all this. I think one could easily view this as the most pessimistic of the three films, and it’s a factor that I was definitely taken aback by, but the final shot offers some redemption imo. Dominique is in jail, although no more so than Karol in his mental imprisonment, but Kieslowski’s kind enough to offer the slightest hint of optimism – it’s clear that the characters still love each other, and in the harsh emotional landscape that they’ve cultivated for themselves, that might just be enough to counter all the pain? God, I love this film. If any of the individual films in the trilogy deserves to be termed a masterpiece, it’s this.


Rouge had already won me over by the time its opening sequence ended. The use of the telephone line as a metaphor for communication, human contact, the transience of these connections… it seemed to sum up the first two films and hinted at the direction towards which this one was going. Having said that, this is also the film with which I have the most difficulty ‘reading’... not that it bothers me? The relationship between Valentine and the judge is one of the most touching that I’ve encountered… maybe ever. That brief moment when both place their hands on the window of his car almost made me bawl for it’s such a beautiful, emblematic gesture, a sign that the initial judgments that we passed over the judge himself have now been transcended… that redemption (salvation?) not to mention fraternity really is possible in Kieslowski’s world. Transcendent is such a useful word for this film actually. Again, I’m not entirely sure how to read the film yet, but the character of the judge struck me as almost God-like in his actions (although if that’s the case then there are all sorts of implications that I can’t even begin to consider right now.) As the film’s use of foreshadowing begins to suggest that Valentine and Auguste are destined, I began to ask myself if the film wasn’t also about fate and missed opportunities and our ability to deal with the mistakes that we’ve made. Hell, it’s really about everything isn’t it? Life itself! And god, Jean-Louis Trintignant is just marvellous in his role. I know La Binoche is spectacular and she’s completely deserving of all her praise, but for my money it’s the veteran that gives the best performance in the entire trilogy, imbuing it with depth and encapsulating the secrets of the film in the contours of his face. He’s marvellous. And as for the finale… I think my heart actually sank with the ferry when I saw it. I was terrified – surely Kieslowski wouldn’t do this to me? I’m so thankful that he didn’t. Once again, he left us with hope and the suggestion that Julie/Olivier and Karol/Dominique had succeeded in moving on… well, there’s another beautiful moment in a film (and trilogy!) full of them.

Ok I’ll stop babbling now. Although I must mention how I loved the “talkiness” of Rouge. So completely up my alley. And btw, the old lady at the bottle bank? !!! Oh, and Irène Jacob is so gorgeous it hurts!

The Golden Coach (Renoir, 1953)

Another week, another Renoir. The Golden Coach this week – and once again, I’ve been caught by surprise. I really didn’t think that I’d particularly gel with his later work at all and hey presto, a week later and The River and The Golden Coach are battling it out for my #2 fave of his films. Well, actually I think the latter film has successfully taken up that position now. It forms such a marked contrast to its predecessor – whilst The River was serene and casual in its pacing and realistic in its form if not its content, The Golden Coach is a bold celebration of artifice (funny, considering the recent mini-discussion?) that flaunts its exuberant colour palette with the intent of explicitly captivating its audience – and Renoir once again proves himself to be a master in the art of cinematic seduction.

TGC terms itself as a “fantasy” from its opening intertitle, and from thereon it presents a thorough examination of the role of theatre and performance (read: artifice) in both the artistic and social worlds. The flamboyant colour scheme and decor forms just one aspect of this complex study: for example, Renoir repeatedly exposes the fact that the film takes place on giant sets and consequently breaks the fourth wall – thus causing a blurring of the distinctions between theatricality and reality (presuming that the latter even exists in the director’s cinematic world.) This then draws attention to the art of performing: and when dealing with the stars themselves, it’s apparent that Renoir was going for anything but realism. One could just accuse the actors of being flat-out bad, but this would be a discredit to the talents of both Anna Magnani and Renoir himself – who, on numerous occasions revealed his knack for directing English-language stars to great English-language performances and was far too brilliant a director to allow ‘bad’ acting infiltrate his film without good reason. The heightened theatricality of the performers at work here suggests that Renoir was further augmenting the general detachment from reality already communicated via the construct of the film itself, and taken in this context Magnani’s performance is a marvel to behold. Her grasp of English leaves much to be desired, but the gusto and sheer determination with which she attacks her role invites comparisons to the greatest star performances that Hollywood had to offer. Every imperfection is stubbornly battered into submission by Magnani’s ferocious brand of charm, a factor which much of TGC’s success hinges upon.

Much has been said about the evaporation during the 1950s of Renoir’s socio-political consciousness that permeated so much of his extraordinary 1930s output, and certainly upon first glance TGC does strike one as a ‘lighter’ effort from a director known as much for his vicious satirical streak as his compassionate humanism. Look a little closer however, and it’s easy to find traces of the badass Renoir of old. The art of performance is not just applicable to the actors, but also to the characters within the filmic world due to the enormous focus on roleplaying in the text. A notable chunk of the film’s allure is dependent upon the exaggerated farcical elements (influenced heavily by La Règle du jeu) that arises from this utilisation of acting-within-performance and which manifests itself in the form of that oh-so familiar concept of class tensions. This is most notable in the relationship shared by Camilla and the Viceroy of course, but consider also the strained liaisons between the Viceroy and his courtiers. Emblematic of these struggles is the ludicrous sequence involving the Viceroy’s attempts to juggle his allegiances between wife, noblemen and mistress (Camilla) each boxed into their own separate rooms: as avid a reflection of social constraints as ever there was in Renoir’s oeuvre, with the direst of political implications hinted at as a result – although admittedly, the critique of the political system’s hypocrisy is severely softened by the film’s situation in the historical past.

To all this, Renoir adds another – arguably more fulfilling – dimension with an investigation of artistic constraints. Thanks to the complex relations between financier, actor and audience there exists a visible contest to exert one’s authority in the precarious world of the performing arts. Camilla succeeds in achieving this, but at what cost? Assuming that the film isn’t simply an extended stage performance, Renoir raises the question of how far actors can act outside of their given roles (yes, it’s almost a Lynchian precursor!) The film’s most notable ‘weakness’ is in it’s failure to conjure up a romantic drama of any substance – despite having three male suitors to exploit. But this is perhaps less a fault and more an embracement of artificiality that finds resonance in the characterisations themselves (note how Ramon’s ‘love’ is a vanity project, whilst the Viceroy uses Camilla to distract from his own monotonous existence.) Camilla’s renunciation during the finale then, should be seen as inevitable: she makes a conscious decision to live her life through the prism of the “2 hours a day” that she spends on stage. This serves as a surprisingly bittersweet end to a film whose critiques are for the most part internalised: aside from dedicating herself wholly to her audience (i.e. us?) and rejecting the opulence of the ‘Golden Coach’ of the title, Camilla implies that any real world has failed to fulfil her wants and needs. In essence, she actively chooses the creative (artificial?) world over the everyday reality of life, realising that love is simply not enough. Maybe, just maybe, we could stretch this analogy to Renoir himself?

Mother and Son (Sokurov, 1997)

More random thoughts:

It’s appropriate that I watched Renoir’s The River and Sokurov’s Mother and Son so close together, because both dismiss the necessity of performance for dramatisation thereby leaving themselves open to become works of outstanding cinematic beauty.

I don’t know how to describe this! A beautiful ode to that unique relationship between mother and child? It’s dialogue is so sparse, and it’s scope so limited (to just the two performances) but it still manages to infer so much by overtly revealing so little. And of course, it’s subject matter is so private in its nature that one can’t help but run an entire gamut of emotions thanks to the tender bond that the two ‘protagonists’ (an inapplicable term really, no?) share.

The film is one of the (very) few that succeed in recreating a sense of ‘otherworldliness’ imo. It seems to exist in limbo – cautiously drifting along the line between life and death, and Sokurov’s mise-en-scene brilliantly reflects that. I’m not quite sure how he does it, but he manages to eradicate all depth-of-field from his shots and he distorts his images to the point where we’re left with a film that resembles a poignant oil canvas that’s alive. How else to describe it?!?! And then there’s his use of sound! Interspersing dialogue with howls, barks, gusts of wind, crashing waves of the sea… sounds that aren’t always there but absolutely serve the cause by assisting in the creation of that truly unique atmosphere.

It’s an elegiac hymn for the senses… yeah! A hymn to that loving mother-son relationship… almost devious in its quiet complexity (the scene with the scrapbook and the postcards that hint at memories both happy and not-so) yet ultimately assured in its simplicity re: their devotion to one another.

Apologies for failing so miserably at conveying what this film means to me. But do yourselves a favour and watch it.

The River (Renoir, 1951)

Random thoughts from elsewhere:

Jean Renoir’s The River is a truly wonderful piece of work that caught me very off-guard. I have to say, I’m not really acquainted with later-period Renoir at all, so to bear witness to this in all its technicolor glory… I mean, wow. Few films can rival this for sheer beauty in that sense. In actual fact, the one that immediately struck me as comparable was Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus – which I then found out was written by the same author as Renoir’s film! Madness.

It really does strike me as something of an anomaly within his oeuvre tho: a gorgeous mood piece, which – unusually for the director – places its women at the forefront. However, it’s nonetheless equally adept at deconstructing the role of masculinity in alien environments: I love how the four principal male characters (the father, Capt. John, Mr. John and Bogey) all utilise India for different gains (imperialism, escapism, immersion and mastery of nature, respectively.)

The awkwardness inherent in pretty much all of the performances is completely offset by the beauty of the film itself imo. It’s amazing to note just how static Renoir’s camerawork is here, it’s as if he’s got the painterly images of his father on the mind at all times. Moreover, the film gently but brilliantly exploits its dichotomy between the documentary-style exposition of the camerawork + the narration which memorialises the past as some sort of artificial reality.

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