after the decalogue, the double life of veronique, and the three colors trilogy, krzysztof kieslowski announced his retirement. in the book double lives, second chances, author annette insdorf notes that kieslowski was disillusioned with filmmaking after the fall of communism, and also the fact that kieslowski thought of red as his best film and that he would not be able to top himself without repeating himself. at the same time, he was also working with his frequent collaborator krzysztof piesiewicz (who co-wrote the majority of kieslowski’s films). having done films based on the ten commandments and the three colors of the french flag, this next project would be another trilogy (heaven, hell, purgatory) based on dante’s divine comedy.
unfortunately, kieslowski, a frequent drinker and smoker, passed away during an open heart surgery in march of 1996. it was less than two years after red was released, and a year after red was nominated for several oscars (he lost in both directing and screenplay categories to robert zemeckis for forrest gump and tarantino for pulp fiction, respectively).
so this is kind of the a.i. situation here. the decision of having tom tykwer (run lola run, the princess and the warrior, perfume: a story of murder) directing a kieslowski script may seem weird at first but it actually kind of make sense. fate, timing, coincidence, irony, the sinner/saint relationship are recurring themes in their works. the only other suitable candidate i can think of is maybe wong kar-wai.
australian cate blanchett plays philippa, an english teacher in italy. her husband died of a drug overdose and to avenge her husband’s death, philippa uses her husband’s homemade bomb to kill a wealthy pharmaceutical executive who manufactured said drug, who has the italian police in his pocket. without the detailed planning and accuracy of tyler durden, her bomb mistakenly killed four innocent bystanders instead of the intended target. giovanni ribisi plays filippo, a new italian police officer who works as a translator between the english speaking philippa and the italian government. hearing philippa’s story, filippo falls in love with her and comes up with a plan to escape with philippa.
the ten minute opening sequence, during which we follow philippa’s bombing, is one of the best opening sequences of all time. though we don’t know any of the characters yet, it is shot and cut in such a tense and suspenseful way that one wonders if tykwer not only equals but perhaps exceeds expectations had kieslowski directed it himself. with its gripping situation and symbolism (victims going up in the elevator, philippa going down the escalator) this sequence in and of itself would have been a great short.
the second act, about philippa and filippo’s escape, is more plot driven than most of kieslowski’s works. tykwer handled it as smoothly as most mainstream movies. it’s hard to imagine what kieslowski would have done in such an event-driven portion. tykwer, thankfully, abandons his usual frenetic pace.
the third act unfortunately, is where the film falls short. kieslowski took his time and made films with a deliberate pace, whereas here we feel like things are slowed down deliberately. it’s essentially the difference between drawing out emotions and withholding information. though it eventually ends with a poetic shot, heaven doesn’t allow for much introspection or rumination it’s over. some of the messages and symbolisms are too obvious and heavy-handed (the bookend helicopter scenes and the adam and eve imagery in the finale).
as superficial as this might sound, i have to say that perhaps the english dialogues have something to do with it. things seem to sound more sophisticated in a language i don’t understand. other than commercial reasons, it doesn’t seem crucial that philippa and filippo speak english. it wouldn’t have made much difference if blanchett’s character is from australia instead of bristol, england. i’m not sure if that’s the reason but things were more mysterious in kieslowski’s films than they are in heaven. needless to say, blanchett is great as the tormented philippa, and ribisi, who speaks italian quite often in the movie, has his best role since richard linklater’s subUrbia.
with its amazing cinematography, heaven nevertheless feels like a more polished and technically improved kieslowski film. the messages and imageries are brought up to the surface while the emotional resonance is not that deep. it is not that big of a surprise though, since it’s a miramax film, who more or less pioneered the commercialized artsy foreign films.
p.s. the next entry, hell, did indeed get made, by bosnian director danis tanovic into the 2005 french movie l’enfer. and depends on who you trust, imdb shows that purgatory became nadzieja in 2007. though wikipedia states that nadzieja, which translated as hope in english, is not related to the heaven, hell, purgatory trilogy but instead, it’s a whole new trilogy, hope, faith, and love, by kieslowski’s collaborator piesiewicz.
heaven is currently available on netflix instant.