A note on Kieślowski

I recently rewatched Krzysztof Kieślowski’s La double vie de Véronique, a film I first saw around Christmastime 2008. Returning to the film was really an attempt to recover the feeling of inspiration and possibility I experienced when I first saw it, a feeling that probably had as much to do with the state of my life as anything on the celluloid (I’d lived in Paris for a year, was just starting my MA, felt isolated and lonely, and took what was most likely too much relief from an email correspondance with a girl in another country, an even bigger fan of Kieślowski than me). Whilst the film didn’t exactly recuperate lost time, or any other losses, I was still presently surprised and enjoyed it a great deal. I saw what it was about Kieślowski’s cinematography that attracted me to him in the first place (I’d watched most of his other films as an undergraduate) and started to wonder whether this quality existed in spite of, or because of, all the other things in Kieślowski that would annoy me if I didn’t intuitively like him so much. And whist I think I originally saw the film at the “right” time, it does still seem to communicate a magical sense of possibility within the everyday.

Kieślowski’s work is easy to interpret through the categories of tragedy, though very little of it is properly tragic. He is more or less obsessed with two themes: chance, and the relation of human to divine law. Most of his films involve some exploration of the two. Yet, whilst all this is the stuff of tragedy (or philosophical arguments about moral luck), Kieślowski’s outlook always veers in some sense wide of the tragic mark. By turns he is too Christian (Dekalog 1) or too nihilist (A Short Film About Killing), and the rest of the time, when he may not be explicitly religious, his attitude towards chance is redemptive: subordinate to coincidence, we accept and affirm our lot with wonder (“But as the unthought-on accident is guilty / To what we wildly do, so we profess / Ourselves to be the slaves of chance and flies / Of every wind that blows”). Coincidence is never totally cruel for Kieślowski.

I have a certain amount of sympathy for this attitude. Nonetheless, as soon as you start to analyze Kieślowski’s films through the categories that he invites, they begin to seem clunky and naïve. One reason for this is that all the talk about chance ultimately has the same banal terminus: everything is, y’know, connected and shit. Sometimes this annoys me on the symbolic level, such as the mawkish final scene of Véronique, in which Irène Jacob touches a tree. At other times, the narrative patterning is awkwardly contrived, such as the culmination of the Trois Couleurs trilogy (the fact that the characters have miniscule cameos in each other’s films I actually like, and think achieves the point gracefully – but do they really need to end up on a boat together?). Furthermore, I just don’t care for Zbigniew Preisner’s neo-Romanticism. He hardly represents the finest of the Polish twentieth century. I always found myself wondering in Bleu how the European Unity piece could ever be taken seriously, but then perhaps it’s an ironic expression of the naivety of that ambition.

And yet, despite his heavy-handedness, I still find myself enjoying Kieślowski. He is, paradoxically, also a master of subtlety. I’m willing to accept my coincidence through intimation, just not to have it rammed down my throat. As soon as the artist’s hand emerges from behind the curtain, anything he says about chance is unbelievable: the kind of wonder that Kieślowski wants to express is no longer properly communicated when he labours the point, as it appears the stuff of pure fiction, not of life. However, he achieves such expression successfully through localized observation and connection, such as the bottlebank motif of the Trois Couleurs.

What’s more, the actual experience of watching Kieślowski’s films is something else. The clunkiness tends to emerge more clearly in reflection and analysis, when the bones are laid bare and the ideas appear fossilized. However, disregarding any misgivings about the narrative level of his work, Kieślowski’s cinematic language is sui generis. At his best, he exercises a purely cinematic power to enchant.

Kieślowski is extremely adept at finding visual correlates for a character’s emotional or psychological state. He composes and paces scenes so that his films are deeply subjective and manages to communicate a huge variety of states of contemplation, anticipation and fulfilment. To recapitulate an old distinction, what I don’t like about him is always on the level of structure, whereas what I do is on the level of phenomenon. And for me the latter always wins (usually because it is far harder to articulate, hence my love of other “phenomenal” filmmakers such as Tarkovsky, Tarr, Antonioni and Wenders). Kieślowski manages to identify you with a particular way of seeing the world at a particular time, and hence his films disclose very particular kinds of contemplative experience.

The two Kieślowski films that have stuck with me the most, Bleu and Véronique, are quite similar in the kind of experience they manage to disclose. Both do so by frequently lingering on small details, the eye of the camera mirroring the attention of the protagonists. And with that attention is expressed a kind of contemplative sensitivity. Indeed, in both these films, the female gaze lights on various objects and scenes in anticipation of their meaning becoming clearer. As a result, it communicates a sense of possibility and manages to enchant the world, with promise arising from the quotidian.

This sense is bound up with the plots of the two films. In Bleu, Juliette Binoche’s character is recently widowed. The topic, again perhaps heavy-handed, is freedom: with her previous life destroyed, every event now has a new significance and represents the possibility of a new beginning. The psychopathology of Véronique is less pronounced, but thematically deals with a similar idea: the heroine is overcome with a feeling of fate and connectedness, and wherever her gaze falls, it appears something significant may arise. The films both convey a powerful way of seeing, indeed of experiencing, in which routine is broken and every event – as Rilke describes it in the first of the Duineser Elegien – announces a beloved:

Ja, die Frühlinge brauchten dich wohl. Es muteten manche
Sterne dir zu, daß du sie spürtest. Es hob
sich eine Woge heran im Vergangenen, oder
da du vorüberkamst am geöffneten Fenster,
gab eine Geige sich hin. Das alles war Auftrag.
Aber bewältigtest du’s? Warst du nicht immer
noch von Erwartung zerstreut, als kündigte alles
eine Geliebte dir an? (Wo willst du sie bergen,
da doch die großen fremden Gedanken bei dir
aus und ein gehn und öfters bleiben bei Nacht.)

Yes, the springtimes needed you. So many stars
expected you to sense them. Rising up,
a wave broke from the past, or
as you passed an open window
a violin gave itself up, over. This all was mission.
But could you handle it? Weren’t you still scattered
in expectation, as if everything announced
a beloved? (But where could you hide her,
with all the vast strange thoughts in you,
coming and going and often staying all night?)

(my translation)

As I watched La double vie de Véronique again, one shot in particular stood out and united the two films: the slow diffusion of tea in Véronique’s mug. This put me in mind of a shot in Bleu where the heroine dips a sugar cube into her coffee. I’m not even sure I paid much attention to this shot when I first saw the film, but I later came across an interview with Kieślowski, perched in front of a Steenbeck, where he discusses it in some detail. I’ve provided a rough translation of the French subtitles below:



It’s a scene in which Binoche, about fourteen or fifteen minutes into the film, meets the man who loves her. There’s music, but we don’t yet know where it’s coming from. Afterwards we learn that there’s a musician playing the flute in the street. I also did something like this in White. There’s a scene there where Karol plays the harmonica in the metro. At this point, Juliette, Julie, rejects the man, and he leaves. And we see where the music is coming from: from this musician, sitting as he plays.

This is a sugar cube about to fall into the coffee. What does this obsession with close-ups mean? Simply that I am trying to show the world of the heroine from her point of view. To let people see that she watches little things, nearby things, by concentrating our attention on them – to show that she doesn’t care about anything else. That she’s trying to narrow her world and close it upon herself and her immediate environment. There are several details like that in the film. I show the sugar cube very close-up as it absorbs the coffee to express the fact that nothing surrounding her interests her. Not other people, not other business, not this boy, this man who loves her, and who went to such trouble to track her down. This doesn’t interest her at all. Only this sugar interests her and she intentionally concentrates upon it to reject everything she doesn’t want.

It seems simple to film a sugar cube that, dipped into coffee, absorbs it and turns brown. If we rewind, it turns white again. The cube is white, it touches the coffee, and it absorbs it. If we turn on the timer, we see that it should take about five and a half seconds, or five seconds, for it to absorb it. Now, how do we make sure that it takes five seconds? It’s not so simple. If we take an ordinary sugar cube like this one and dip it into coffee – I’ll start the timer – bah! Eight seconds. At least three seconds too long. I had to prepare one that soaked it up in five seconds. I judged that we should not linger any longer on such a detail. And my assistant spent half a day testing all sorts of sugars in order to find one that soaks up coffee in five seconds and not eight or eleven, like some do, or in three seconds, like other varieties. We found one that took the required time. If we time it again, we can confirm that it takes – four and a half seconds. I was looking for a cube that soaked up coffee fast enough for a scene like this.

What does some stupid sugar sucking up this idiotic coffee have to do with me? Nothing, except that for a moment I am in the world of the heroine, of this heroine who dips the sugar and watches it in order to reject the offer made to her by the man who loves her. And who in addition was at one point her lover. She wants to reject this offer, to forget this man. And to forget the music that won’t stop, because this music reminds her of something she doesn’t want.

And if you ask me if I think about the viewer, about their point of view, I come back to this stupid piece of sugar. I try to think about them all the time. We don’t do “previews” or test projections. But I feel that the viewer can cope with four and a half seconds of dipping sugar, but eight and a half would really be too much.

The cube is dropped, the coffee is spilled, and the heroine approaches the musician. Then there’s the dialogue, which lets her understand that different people in different places in the world, think the same thing at the same time. It’s an almost obsessive theme. People, in different places and for different reasons, think the same thing. I said that I was trying to talk about what unites people. It’s the case with this feeling, and with this music, since all these notes exist, dispersed somewhere, waiting for whoever will collect them and put them in order. And the fact that two people, at different moments, and in different places, of different status, suddenly collect these notes in the same way, seems to me a sign of what unites people.

I remain quite indifferent to Kieślowski’s final remarks about fate, coincidence, and so on – this seems a rather obvious explanation of what is going on in the film. What’s interesting is the sheer level of attention he gives to the sugar cube, and what’s more, that it’s this cube that unites people – the gaze of the viewer with that of the protagonist. Of course, this is not hermeneutically robust, but where do we get if we want only robust and wissenschaftliche statements about artworks? We’ll miss the very thing by waiting for it. We end up back on the structural level, talking about just those aspects of Kieślowski that I have little time for, and which don’t really contribute to his greatness as a filmmaker. His greatness comes from the fact that every one of his shots is composed like this sugar cube, an exercise in attention and sympathy.

This, I think, accounts for the power of Véronique, on a purely cinematic level. Her teacup expresses a different feeling from the sugar cube. Our perspective is narrowed to that of her subjective world, but she does not close herself off to it. Rather, as we step inside her gaze, the meaning of the tea becomes unfixed, and it diffuses slowly towards some unknown goal. She sits in a contemplative state of inspiration and possibility, and we feel with her, on a phenomenal level, the film’s structural concern with chance that seems so inarticulate when stated directly. We are, again as Rilke has it, scattered in expectation. Every glance is rich with possibility.

The world is rejuvenated.

This entry was posted in aesthetic experience, film, Kieślowski, Rilke, tragedy. Bookmark the permalink.

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