The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: October 22 - 29, 1998

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Off Colors

This So-So . . . could be better

by Peter Keough

KRZYSZTOF KIESLOWSKI: I'M SO-SO . . . Written and directed by Krzysztof Wierzbicki. With Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jacek Petrycki, and Michal Zarnecki. A First Run Features release.

At the beginning of the documentary Krzysztof Kieslowski: I'm So-So . . . (which is screening this weekend at the Brattle Theatre along with a selection of the director's films), a variety of "experts" -- a clairvoyant, a policeman, a psychotherapist, a graphologist, and a physician -- ponder artifacts of the creator of The Decalogue, The Double Life of Véronique, and Three Colors. The priest listens to a tape of a Kieslowski tirade against church dogmatism. "He's succumbed to the old temptation," the priest comments. "Who's God? God or myself?" The physician holds up a more ominous relic, a chest X-ray, and noting that the patient smokes, drinks coffee, and has worked many years in a stressful profession, concludes that his circulatory system will break down. "It's inevitable," he says.

And so it was. In March 1996, a year after this film was made by his longtime associate Krzysztof Wierzbicki, Kieslowski died of a heart attack at the age of 55. Regrettably, the title of So-So . . . is accurate. The opening intimations of mortality and divinity are only a tease; like the rest of the film, they offer tantalizing insights into the enigmatic filmmaker that are never followed up on. Less than an hour long, So-So . . . seems thin and is more frustrating than illuminating. But for its glimpse of Kieslowski at his sphinxlike, dour and playful best and its introduction to early works seldom seen in this country, it's a welcome footnote to a body of work tragically cut short.

It's most forthcoming about the filmmaker's earlier years. Interviewed in black and white in a shabby shed on the director's estate near Warsaw, he tells of how the indirection and fatality celebrated in his films first guided him into filmmaking itself. When he expressed a desire to be a stoker, his father sent him to a firefighting school to disabuse him of the notion. It worked, and Kieslowski transferred to a theatrical school, then applied to film school. He was rejected three times; had getting in not become a point of honor, he might not have persisted. Stubbornness and pride, not artistic inclination, determined his calling.

Such fatalistic dismissals of genius are typical, but Wierzbicki is too deferential to the master to press him on this or other subjects. Such is the case with Kieslowski's response to the 1980 Camera Buff (screens Friday at 4 and 9:30 p.m.), the story of an ordinary man whose obsession with a movie camera destroys his life. In the end the man makes a politically charged documentary that threatens the lives of those recorded. He exposes the film, Kieslowski remarks, in a "pathetic attempt to avoid responsibility." "This is true of me, too," Kieslowski adds. "I often feel like leaving a film unfinished."

Or a film career. At the time the documentary was made, Kieslowski had just retired from making movies. Certainly his health was a factor, as suggested by the physician's prognosis earlier in the film, though that doesn't seem to have made any inroads on his Marlboro consumption. But the sense of responsibility brought up by Camera Buff is not pursued, and neither is that film's depiction of the cinema as almost vampiristic, sucking dry the life of the filmmaker, who with no other life to photograph ultimately turns the camera on himself.

Wierzbicki instead focuses on Kieslowski's more political, earlier films, such as his TV drama The Calm (1976), about union solidarity and treachery, and the cryptic Blind Chance (1980). A precursor to the inexplicably popular Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors, Chance tells three stories about the same young man whose fate hinges on whether or not he catches a train. As Kieslowski points out to Wierzbicki while the latter waits for his own train, in two versions the hero chooses sides politically and lives, in the third he remains neutral and dies. "Why don't you exert political leadership?", Wierzbicki asks. Showing rare pique, Kieslowski snarls out that he doesn't need the responsibility.

Famous last words, perhaps. In truth, Kieslowski would have been merely distracted by politics; his vision aspired to higher things, and what he saw there didn't necessarily give him hope. Echoing the misanthropy of his retired judge in the 1994 Red (Sunday at 3:30 and 7:30 p.m.), the concluding feature of his Three Colors trilogy and his last film, he says, "My best characteristic is my pessimism . . . the future is a black hole." It's one that will be brighter because of the films he left to illuminate it.

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