First there is the image, the quality of the image: ugly, brutal, grimy, plump, direct. Especially that, breathtakingly direct. This is poor cinema, made quickly, without great resources but with an audacity we haven’t seen in years. The cinematic cynicism of the Pole Kieslowski moves me greatly.
Kieslowski’s films are films that haven’t been endlessly pondered over: the spur of the moment is given space, the risk of bad taste too. He plays his sense of the grotesque without stylising it. In everything he does, he feels more primitive than sophisticated.
Suddenly I notice what kept me out of the cinema in the past decade: that prudish perfectionism, the fear of one’s own naivety, the entrenchment behind the technically good image, behind narrative probability, behind the double standards of serious entertainment.
The filmmaker lives in his films. His decisions don’t flawlessly follow an academic ideal but flawlessly follow what he has to say. It’s not without vulgarity, demagoguery or overemphatic naturalism, but the film takes all this in unadulterated. And I take it with both hands and bring it to my eyes, which greedily indulge in it. How many years has it been since I have seen such vital images?
The films in the series about the ten commandments are not a modern commentary on the commandment/prohibition itself. The filmmaker only takes as his theme the subject the commandment refers to. In the process, great amoral perversity creeps into the film: he wonders, he asks us, what the object of that code of conduct may be. He looks for a definition of it: what is a “murder”? What is “desire”? He uses an experimental setup to demonstrates the process: a murder happens like this, it is improvised or ritualised, with or without deliberation, but in any case it is cumbersome. “Desire” is an extravagant and exclusive interest in the “neighbour” – punctual or constant, controlled or overgrown, it is in any case “cumbersome”.
Cumbersomeness is a major theme in this oeuvre. Those not immediately feeling it tend to call his films laborious. But how beautiful, for instance, the didactic explanation of the initial situation! Its directness and naivety – compared to the symphonic nuances in Rear Window – are the basis for clinical horror. Incidentally, that laborious, overexplicit construction of a situation is simultaneously nuanced and sharpened by the economy of what is seen in the image. No great resources when it comes to the location. Small touches from the material world around the figures. The boy’s electric water heater as an obscene little thing. The unnameable tapestry of the woman across the street is her obscene object.
Sometimes the filmmaker resorts to one of the least acceptable tricks of the Eastern European film tradition: symbolism. Condensing, hiding, clarifying, offering it for perusal by metaphorically shifting it, self-censoring and yet the urge to communicate. One senses the hypocrisy of this method, its desperate provincialism. The filmmaker had to work his way out of this with all his might, but he retained one thing: the sense of simplified contours for the characters, their actions, dialogues, relationships. Yet the characters are not symbolist set pieces (think 1970s Hungarian and Czech films), their material quality, their materialistic anchoring being too radical for that. Particularly wonderful here is the casting strategy for the male characters: antiglamorous, with the dubious charm of the peasantly awkward, the coarsely unattractive, the frighteningly repulsive. The female characters, on the other hand, are convincingly beautiful and sensuous, but the film does not revolve around them, even though the male characters do. The film gives them an image depending on the male protagonist. It is masculine, misogynistic cinema.
I like the brusqueness of the movements: the sudden, surprising turns of the camera, in the decoupage, viewing angles, narrative construction. No preparations, but suddenly it’s there: obvious and perfect in the intellectual breath of the piece. No great resonances of the actions: for instance, the scene in which the young man walks around with the milk cart, the film sweeping along. One moment of absolute kinetics. Where it is established in deep anti-emotionality.
A radical distrust of emotions is hovering over Kieslowski’s oeuvre. The emotion that takes hold of the characters is studied from the outside. Can one imagine a more inappropriate, grim, ludicrous scene than the first erotic encounter between the young man and the woman from across the street? It’s like one of those famous phrases by Flaubert about making love “en fumant un cigare” [while smoking a cigar]. These films are the opposite of simple; they are a fragile and unstable result of highly divergent ambitions and possibilities. The filmmaker speaks different dialects at the same time, suffering from different inhibitions, hovering between provincialism and universality, between a breathtaking sense of documentary value and the will to escape from the anecdotal by way of pure, pared-down form. The wonderful thing is that these distant exotic films flawlessly give shape to what life is like for us in Europe right now and what we think about it.
Images from Dekalog, szesc [Dekalog: Six] (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1990).
This text originally appeared in Kunst & Cultuur, no. 23, April 1990.
This translation was published by courtesy of Reinhilde Weyns and Bart Meuleman.
With the support of LUCA School of Arts, LUCA.breakoutproject.