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Friday, April 7, 2006
After 'Heaven,' you go to 'Hell'
The 10 best films of the 1990s? If you were to ask a film buff, there's no question that something by Krzysztof Kieslowski would be on the list. From "La Double vie de Veronique," to "Bleu" and "Rouge" from the "Trois couleurs [Three Colors]" trilogy, Kieslowski's sleek, sensuous imagery, oblique storytelling and transcendent mysticism remain a combo that's hard to top.
The thrilling thing about Kieslowski's work was how his cool, restrained, quintessentially European art cinema would blossom into something far less cerebral, its final acts invariably making a direct appeal to the heart. Intellect would ultimately be in service of emotion.
Kieslowski died, suddenly, at the peak of his cinematic powers at age 54 in 1996. It seemed like so much was still left undone, and like Stanley Kubrick before him, others have tried to carry on and complete his final works-in-progress.
Before his death, Kieslowski had been working on several scripts with his "Trois couleurs" collaborator, screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Inspired by the works of Dante, they envisioned another interconnected trilogy: "Heaven," "Hell" and "Purgatory." The rights were picked up by Miramax, and they signed on "Run, Lola, Run" director Tom Tykwer to direct "Heaven." It appeared in 2003 and did poorly at the box office (though this critic found it worthy), and Miramax quickly dropped the project. A number of European financiers stepped up (along with Tokyo distributor Bitter's End), and soon Bosnian director Danis Tanovic, whose film "No Man's Land" won an Oscar for best foreign film in 2001, was brought in to resurrect the series with "Hell," playing here under the French title "L'Enfer."
There wasn't much in "No Man's Land" to suggest Tanovic would be the heir apparent to Kieslowski. Addressing the fratricidal wars in post-Yugoslavia, that film reeked of black humor and a cynical view of human nature. These qualities could be occasionally glimpsed in Kieslowski (try the ending of "Blanc," for one), but Tanovic's world of trench warfare and media-savvy gunmen seemed far removed from the more psychological and existential concerns of Kieslowski.
To his credit, Tanovic delivers a work very much in the style of the maestro; cinematographer Laurent Dailland, in particular, does a good job of invoking the look of the "Trois Couleurs" series. Tanovic has also assembled a first-rate cast of French actresses to rival the "Trois Couleurs" lineup of Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob.
"Hell" has Emmanuelle Beart, Karin Viard and Marie Gillain as three sisters living separate lives in Paris. All three have male troubles, but of different sorts: Beart's Sophie is in a blue funk because her photographer husband (Jacques Gamblin) is cheating on her. Gillain's Anne, a university student, is nearing the end of an affair with her professor (Jacques Perrin, best known as the director of "Wataridori"), while Celine (Viard) remains a scared, lonely single, putting all her free time into caring for her crippled mother (a stern-looking Carole Bouqet).
Flashbacks hint at a traumatic event in the sisters' childhood that removed their father from their lives, and left their mother in a wheelchair. This, one supposes, influences the women in their mid-life male problems: Anne succumbs to papa-kon (father complex) -- as the Japanese so endearingly call it -- while Sophie bars the door on her husband, just like her mother once did to her father. Celine flees from all male contact, though the mysterious stranger following her will soon reveal a secret about her past, one which will lead her to seek out her sisters.
The various stories circle each other warily for a while, before finally coming together near the end -- fortunately without the heavy-handed didacticism of "Crash." On the other hand, the ending of "Hell" is something of a nonevent. The sisters' final confrontation with their bitter, frosty mother provides no closure, no resolution. Perhaps that is the nature of hell being presented here: a world without forgiveness, without pity.
The sum of the parts may be greater than the whole in this case. While the story is hardly a classic, the performances are all quite compelling. Gillain as the jilted lover, gives her character a fiery, desperate passion, torn between despair and stalking her ex.
It's Beart who steals the show, though: An explosive scene in which she confronts her husband -- alternating between, tears, caresses and violence -- is one of the emotionally rawest scenes this fine actress has ever done.
Still, her casting may have been a mistake; the suspension of disbelief becomes impossible at times. It seems far easier to accept walking, talking trees in "The Two Towers" than to accept that someone married to the infinitely charming Beart would turn his back to her in bed.