If you’re familiar with Kieslowski’s career, you know there are 2 Kieslowskis: the Polish Kieslowski—realistic, social/political, grey, unglamorous (Blind Chance, Dekalog…), and the international Kieslowski—metaphysical, poetic, visually dazzling… (The Double Life of Veronique, the Three Colours trilogy).
Marek Haltof talks about the turning point:
“In his Polish- French co-productions […] the realistic, often uncomplimentary vision of Poland—a realm of drab landscapes populated by grey characters that are dwarfed by the political system—gives way to dazzling photography, as if taken from glossy illustrated journals. Individuals struggling with themselves replace earlier recognisable characters struggling with communist reality. The unglamorous female characters from Kieslowski’s previous films, often portrayed as narrow-minded and not understanding the aspirations of the male protagonists, are replaced by glamorous foreign characters. From being almost always on the margin of Kieslowski’s stories, and often not deserving of the viewer’s sympathy, they move to the centre of his films. They are young, beautiful and tirelessly dynamic.”I don’t agree with every single point. It’s true that women are on the margin of the story in Blind Chance and I don’t know about Kieslowski’s earlier films, but the 10 episodes of Dekalog are about stories of both men and women, and Kieslowski depicts both sexes with humanity and without judgment. The female characters in Dekalog exist as individuals, with their strengths and shortcomings, like the male ones.
However, the passage does explain well the differences between the 2 periods in Kieslowski’s career. He moves inward. The Double Life of Veronique is a film about feelings, and Three Colours: Blue is an internal film.
Haltof also talks about the stylistic changes:
“Unlike Kieslowski’s earlier works, his films made in the 1990s become visually refined to the point of being ornate. The camera does not reveal as in his early films, but intrudes, and calls attention to itself through symbolic, ‘unnatural’ use of colours, camera angles and lighting. The same can be said about Zbigniew Preisner’s music which sometimes takes over the films. Kieslowski’s change of direction can be described as follows: from functional to ‘expressionistic’ photography, from unobtrusive soundtrack to overwhelming musical score, from ordinary characters in everyday situations to literary characters set in a designer’s world, from the particular to the general, from outer to inner reality and from realism to ‘artiness’. A director of detailed realistic observations becomes a director of metaphysical experiences.”Is it just me, or does Haltof reveal himself to prefer the Polish period to the international period?
First of all, Kieslowski’s Polish-French films are undeniably beautiful, especially The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colours: Blue are among the most beautiful films I have ever seen. But they are not beautiful in a superficial, empty, style-over-substance way—the cinematography is visually dazzling but it’s Kieslowski’s skills for visual storytelling, attention to details, and poetic sensibilities that I admire. The best example is the opening of Blue, in which he does not use words or anything lengthy but hints and suggests in close-ups and lets the audience piece together what’s going on.
Secondly, if we exclude Three Colours: White (which is mostly set in Poland and different from the other international productions anyway), Kieslowski moves inward, exploring feelings such as loneliness, grief... so his style naturally has to change to fit it. People who prefer the realism of the Polish films may call it artiness, but he utilises lots of POV shots (which I would say do not call attention to themselves) and lots of music, because these films are internal and abstract, showing the main character’s inner world. In addition, The Double Life of Veronique and Blue are both about music.
Thirdly, the “core” remains the same.
Grazyna Stachowna, as quoted by Haltof, lists the motifs in the trilogy that are also in Kieslowski’s earlier films:
“… blind chance, Van den Budenmayer, voyeurism and eavesdropping, an old woman with a bottle, the final cry of the protagonists, windows, beads made of glass, the 2-franc coin, loneliness, jealousy, humiliation, contempt, sex and suicide.”More importantly, Kieslowski, whether he’s dealing with social/political issues or private struggles, is still most of all interested in the individual. He’s interested in emotions, relationships, moral dilemmas, choices, and the different paths we may take. He’s interested in depicting and exploring people, as individuals, without judgment—he seeks to understand.
It is strange the way some directors have a clear turning point in their career. Fellini can be divided into early Fellini (neorealism) and late Fellini (Felliniesque—grotesque, dreamlike, cartoonish, heavily influence by Carl Jung). 8 ½ is the peak of his career, which stands apart and can’t be categorised this way, and the same might be said of La Dolce Vita, but before La Dolce Vita is early Fellini (The White Sheik, I vitelloni, La Strada, Il bidone, Nights of Cabiria…) and after 8 ½ is late Fellini (Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini Satyricon, Roma, Fellini’s Casanova, Amarcord, City of Women…). My favourite Fellini film is 8 ½, and generally I prefer early Fellini, apart from Amarcord.
(Perhaps that means I’m not truly a Fellini fan).
Another example is Zhang Yimou. Early Zhang Yimou (before Hero) is serious drama films, about socio-political issues in Chinese society. Some of his early films are masterpieces, such as Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, and I like or once liked very much some others such as Red Sorghum and Ju Dou. That Zhang Yimou is the great director in Chinese cinema. Since Hero, his career has taken a new turn—he not only turned to commercial cinema but also betrayed himself and sold his soul to the devil (by which I mean the Chinese communist party), attempting to rewrite history and making propaganda movies for the Chinese government. Since Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower, I have not seen anything else by Zhang Yimou. I despise him only less than Jackie Chan. However, because of his great talent, I might watch Shadow for curiosity, if I can find it.
To go back to Kieslowski, he didn’t betray himself. I like both periods, for different reasons. And he’s great.