Colors Trilogy was years in the making

All those who’ve spent solitary hours in a darkened theater searching for truth, meaning, and the Cosmic Muffin, readying oneself for the ultimate filmic experience, can achieve their collaborative goal by watching Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Dekalog.”

No, “Dekalog” has nothing to do with the Olympics.

Once art-house audiences, outside of his native Poland, discovered Kieslowski through his films like “The Double Life of Véronique” they were ready to elevate him to Bergman-like status. “Dekalog” only reinforces any idea one might have about Kieslowski’s directorial prowess. The 10-episodes are his version of the Ten Commandments, originally a television series, and his take seems to indicate that a person can act in accordance with God’s rules and yet not believe in God.

Kieslowski steered his films away from saturated political content, focusing on the inner lives of his characters. The state still banned his 1987 “Blind Chance” after declaring martial law. “Blind Chance” revolves about the three possible paths that one minor decision could make. Chance occurrence played a heavy part in most of Kieslowski’s work.

The 10-episodes of “Dekalog” take place with different characters but the plot-line of one story may be used as a lecture by a teacher from another episode, as in the juxtaposition of events in episodes two and eight; or the common quest for a rare stamp, a German stamp from the ’30s that when pronounced sounds like some blimp-fart.

All of the characters live within the same district in Warsaw, yet their occasional re-appearance, usually relegated to the background, are like accidental bleed-throughs rather than overt, and noticeable, direction.

Stylistically the episodes differ in texture and manner, even using separate cinematographers. We might be unhappy, or we might be elated, but we’re never without pause. The close observer might notice one man who appears in the background of eight of the episodes. Kieslowski considered him an observing angel. Who knows? It could be the Polish Silver Surfer. Perhaps, Kieslowski was so bored with politics that he turned his introspection to religion.

The commandments don’t really correspond to the episodes if one is looking for literal meaning. Commandments two and four seem alike, while Kieslowski splits commandment 10 for episodes nine and 10.

Dekalog I: I Am the Lord Our God

A man explains the absence of God to his young son. They bond through computer games and the father computes that the thickness of the ice and the corresponding outside temperature mean it’s safe to skate on the lake. A freak thaw occurs, the boy is drowned. (This is explained in an early draft of the script where the power company had released hot water into the lake.) The father goes to the local church, in anger turning over the alter. Does the candle wax splatter on the Madonna or are those icy tears?

Dekalog II: Thou Shalt Not Take The Name of The Lord In Vain

A woman presses a doctor to give her information on her terminal husband’s condition which she will use to decide on an abortion. The doctor refuses to play God.

Dekalog III: Honor the Sabbath Day

For the episode that most resembles White in its darker sexual leanings, we find a taxi driver called away from his family on Christmas Eve by his old g.f. to search for her missing husband. A solitary Warsaw dominates the night shots as our protag finds out she lying.

Dekalog IV: Honor Thy Mother and Father

A long un-read letter reveals a life changing secret. A daughter’s relation with her widowed father turns sexual when it’s discovered he’s not her biological father.

Dekalog V: Thou Shalt Not Kill

A reflection on capital punishment, with the killing of a taxi driver by a hooligan, and his eventual execution by hanging carefully shown. The camera lingers on both deaths to the point of horror. In it’s own way, episode five outdoes Dead Man Walking for the stark realization of a crime and its consequence.

Dekalog VI: Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery

Strange and dark goings-on between a peeper and the woman on whom he spies.

Dekalog VII: Thou Shalt Not Steal

A woman, who had a baby at 16, and whose mother raised the girl as her daughter, steals back her child.

Dekalog VIII: Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness

A professor welcomes an American translator to her class. Both women are soon engaged in a private conflict over incidents that took place during WWII, as part of a life/death decision with the Resistance.

Dekalog IX: Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Wife

A man who’s become impotent considers committing suicide by riding his bicycle off a bridge.

Dekalog X: Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Goods

The most pithy episode brings together two brothers after the death of their father. One’s a rocker in the Bono-mode, and the other is a businessman. Their father was a stamp collector and has amassed a collection so valuable that one brother considers selling one of his kidneys to afford to buy a stamp that was long ago stolen from the old man’s collection.


10 COMMANDMENTS

The law of God contains ten commandments. It’s in the Bible, Exodus 20: 3-17 NIV.

[1] You shall have no other gods before me.

[2] You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to thousands who love me and keep my commandments.

[3] You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

[4] Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

[5] Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

[6] You shall not murder.

[7] You shall not commit adultery.

[8] You shall not steal.

[9] You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

[10] You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

INTERVIEWS with the Women of the “Colors Trilogy”

BLUE

When Juliette Binoche read for the part of Julie in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blue” she gave him two photos.

“One was unfocused, the other was in focus. He loved the one that was out of focus. He knew that I understood the character,” she said by phone in focused English with a gentle Parisian accent.

“After this meeting I was reading a book and suddenly there was this paragraph that was very interesting that I wanted to send it to him. A story of how Visconti wanted to have Charlotte Rampling for one of his films. She was supposed to play a mother of three, ages three to seven. And she was 18 or 20. She called him up and said ‘I’m too young.’ He said, ‘I’m not interested in your age, I’m interested in what’s happening in your life.’

“Afterwards he said, ‘Fine you can do it.’”

“Why does she have to be 33? I’ll be there anyway,” Binoche adds with a laugh.

“The part has to be older so people will understand that she can build her life back again,” Kieslowski told her.

Part of a trilogy examining modern day Europe, “Blue” thrusts the audience into Julie’s life as she is widowed. “She accepts her pain which liberates her.

“Generous people don’t know it,” Binoche said about her performance. Kieslowski moves in patterns and moods, not surprisingly those of the color spectrum between green and violet. Having worked both on European and English language films, Binoche occasionally broke from Kieslowski’s more abstract method of filmmaking.

“Sometimes I’d have to stress the importance of doing another take, sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t,” she recalled. “I just accepted it and did it the way he wanted it; I would say that one month I was fighting and the next month I wasn’t fighting anymore.

“At first he [Olivier, played by Benoit Regent] appears to be weak but yet he’s the one who’s going to help her to accept things and start her life again,” Binoche explained, “Weakness is sometimes stronger than we think.”

WHITE

“To me the richest culture is when it’s a mix of everything. When you look at France it’s been invaded by Arabs, by Germans, or English. By everybody,” comments Julie Delpy speaking by phone from a hotel in New York. Promoting the Miramax release “White,” Delpy said working on the middle installment of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Colors Trilogy challenged both her perceptions of acting and present day Europe.

“White,” as comical and whimsical as the previous installment was cold and experimental, follows the break-up between Karol a Polish hairdresser and his French wife Dominique. The last piece of the trilogy and Kieslowski’s last film since he announced his retirement as a director at Cannes this year “Red” will open in the U.S. at year’s end and promises to briefly reunite all the lead characters from the previous Colors films.

Delpy describes Kieslowski as a director who cares about his actors.

“The first take is the best, the most spontaneous and the most natural,” she said. “When he gets what he wants he doesn’t try to get something else. That’s it. I remember we were shooting the love scene. It was extremely exhausting because he wanted something really precise in the timing of the screaming.”

This is a scene where Dominique (Delpy) is finally having sex with Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski). The reason they were divorced at the beginning is because he couldn’t consummate the wedding.

“I had to breathe for ten seconds then begin to scream slowly for ten seconds. And then after 20-seconds I had to scream really loud, and then after 30 seconds I had to scream like a maniac,” said Delpy describing her character’s inner dialogue. “So it was timing, you know, and I could see him keeping me advised, next to the camera. It was about timing more than about acting. We spent a long time doing it, three or four hours.”

In the end Kieslowski was not happy with what he had asked Delpy to do. “He wanted something, and at the same time when you ask for something you get something else. In the end we re-shot it,” Delpy said, “we re-shot it in five minutes.”

Reserved and preferring to spend time alone reading scripts or books, Delpy sees herself as “very serious, very faithful and whatever.” Still she pragmatically called nightlife a “macho world. Women, 40-years ago and today, cannot go alone at night in a bar alone without being annoyed by 20 guys. The media says there’s a lot of change. I don’t believe it. I’m not a feminist. I think society is wrong, not men. If a director sees a pretty girl he would be stupid not to fuck her if she’s ready to do it. It’s her fault. She’s using herself to get work.”

Delpy was recently seen in “The Three Musketeers” as well as parts in “Europa, Europa” and Bertrand Tavernier’s “La Passion Beatrice.” While one scene in “White” was shot on a 17-degree overcast day it was nothing compared to shooting in a castle on location in the Pyrenees Mountains for “Beatrice.”

“It was so cold I couldn’t move my finger. I had to run around naked. I don’t even remember shooting the scene.” Delpy figuratively added, “I was almost unconscious, it was so cold my brain was frozen.” Delpy leaves for Vienna shortly to star in Richard Linklater’s newest film, “Before Sunrise.”

RED

“We did a film before,” Irène Jacob said referring to “The Double Life of Véronique,” to a round table of reporters at New York City’s Rhiga Royal hotel. In Véronique her turn in dual roles won her the best actress prize at Cannes in 1991, thus putting her in a pivotal position with Juliette Binoche and Julie Delpy as the trio of heroines ripe for director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy.

Jacob read the first treatment of the three films “Blue,” “White” and “Red” while working with the enigmatic Polish director. Kieslowski told Jacob that the films would express a European feeling by shooting in three different countries to represent each color. “They were trying to find a country which would be a French language country, but not France,” said Jacob.

The resulting film was shot in Switzerland. Ironically “Red” will not be eligible for a foreign film Oscar® because the movie, in the financial equivalent of its layered thematic meaning, is a co-production of the multiple European countries where it was shot. The academy felt that a film by a Polish director with mainly Swiss backing was not quite a real Swiss film. Sort of like the difference between Hershey’s and Godiva chocolate. “White” takes place in Paris and Poland and “Blue” takes place in France. “It’s impossible to do a Swiss-Swiss movie or a French-French movie,” Jacob intoned. “We haven’t the money.”

In a sense, Jacob speaks for Kieslowski since the 53-year old helmer remains reclusive following his announced retirement from filmmaking after “Red.”

In an interview in the NY Times Kieslowski spoke of retirement from film as the ability to “Just sit in a room and smoke.” He stated about the film’s location, the Swiss town of Geneva: “One of the richest countries, and yet it’s filled with so many unhappy people. It’s probably the only country in the world where it’s considered a virtue to turn your neighbor in for not paying their taxes.”

Jacob lilts in her broken English: “Kieslowski speaks of the kind of expectation and hope you feel as a child. It’s true, people give trust, and sometimes, no, they give us something really bad too.

“If someone is good it’s always a surprise and really nice. It’s a chance we have met this person before,” Jacob said. “We aren’t meant to be alone, and we hope, always, to find a good match in whatever we do. In friendship or love.” Referring to “Red,” Jacob added: “Great are the non-encounters between characters. They pass without ever meeting. They might be really great for each other but they never meet. This idea reminds me of the two characters in “The Double Life of Véronique,” where the two identical Véroniques are face to face but they don’t see each other.”

Kieslowski’s films are reminiscent of art films, particularly Ingmar Bergman. Audiences have varied reactions and interpretations to the events taking place on screen. Ambiguity plays a role in the varied plots of Kieslowski’s trilogy. Though the stories have interlocking events one need not see them in order, or in tandem for the ideas to make sense. They stand on their own. Also like Bergman, Kieslowski changes style from film to film and he provides existential if not fantastical roles for actresses. Whereas “Blue” unrolls as solemn, courting death and depression, “White” comes across like a dirty sly joke with sex treated as a comic weapon.

“What is a common thing between the three is the director, the way he looks at people,” Jacob said. “I think the story leaves the concept to return to something which is more about feelings.” Jacob’s English is as conceptual as Kieslowski’s images, but the meaning is clear. Half in jest she mutters, “I don’t know, I need to look at a dictionary.”

Many of the scenes in “Red” were long takes and the coverage took up to a week to film. Sometimes Jacob found Kieslowski’s method of discovery very roundabout. “If I would say something, he was interested in the reaction of Jean-Louis; if Jean-Louis said something he would be interested in how I would react to it. It was like we were building something in the middle we couldn’t see. In “Véronique” it was the introspection of a woman. The camera was entering inside someone. Here, in “Red,” the camera is in the middle of two people,” Jacob said.

“Valentine doesn’t feel compassion at all, she would like to help but she can’t face the limits,” Jacob said about her character, a young model whose wall-sized ad mage adorns a busy street corner. When she hits a dog with her car she seeks out its owner. What Valentine finds is a cranky, retired judge who uses the latest electronic gimmickry to listen in to his neighbor’s cell phone calls. Valentine’s neighbor, a law student, mirrors hers in the way they face moral dilemmas. Though they live across the street from each other they never meet.

“It’s a mystery when you provoke things. You never know who responds to your provocation,” Jacob mused. “We are not here to be alone. Even if we have no friends. We feel a kind of closeness to someone else, and this is a gift we have.”

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