Krzysztof Kieslowski is one for enigmatic titles: his current trilogy is called Blue, White and Red, or, if you prefer, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. But there's also a reassuringly familiar thing- ness to his work: each of these three films, for instance, opens on a close-up of a significant but mundane object - a wobbly car wheel that will cause a fatal accident, a battered trunk, a telephone. For him and his long-term co-writer, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, the high-flying abstract ideas are anchored in a familiar material reality which makes you believe (sometimes mistakenly) that their meaning is just within your grasp.
In Three Colours White, the central panel of the triptych, Kieslowski, as always, cuts straight to the quick. The opening scene, set in a Paris courtroom, pitches us into the divorce hearing between Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a Polish hairdresser and Dominique (Julie Delpy), his French wife. The grounds: the marriage is unconsummated. Minutes in, we're intimate with them in a dramatically forceful way (imagine the same information conveyed through a tete a tete in the privacy of the couple's living room). Here's another moment, a little later on: for a hefty fee, Karol has agreed to kill an unknown client, who wants to commit suicide but not by his own hand. Karol needs the money. But the man with the death wish turns out to be his best friend. Karol points the gun unsteadily, asks him if he's serious . . . White is full of these startling, intense vignettes.
The film's other strength is that it mostly takes place in the director's native Poland. Paris and Geneva, the respective settings of Blue and Red, provided elegant, echoing chambers for the characters' existential dilemmas. Warsaw is an eyesore: an urban sprawl of ragged, down-at-heel shops and kiosks and stark, freezing homes. It's a city in flux, invaded by spivs and profiteers: glasnost has made everybody equal, but some are soon more equal than the rest. As Karol makes his fortune, briskly sacrificing scruples along the way, you get a real sense of a country in a crazy tailspin.
But Kieslowski can also be tantalisingly elusive, and allusive. The mordant comedy of his central section sits uneasily with the framing love story; sometimes they seem to belong to different movies (while his hero is off profiteering, Kieslowski keeps cutting briefly to his wife back in her dark Paris flat, as though to remind us she's still in the game). Dominique starts out as a brittle bitch. It's not enough to divorce her husband humiliatingly; she must also leave him penniless with the police on his tail. In Warsaw, he dedicates his career to turning the tables. And, finally, she too knows the sour taste of being alone, abroad, not speaking the language, and on the wrong side of the law ('white' stands for economic equality, but also, emotionally, for getting even).
At the end, as at the beginning, an image recurs: Karol, in the street, looking up at his wife framed in a high window. But the contexts are completely different. And Dominique (in a film teeming elsewhere with brilliant characters) remains as flat as the beautiful alabaster bust which Karol steals to take her place: first impossibly cruel, then improbably tender. She's an easy dramaturgical convenience.
But there is so much else to enjoy here: the sly gallows humour, the brilliant editing, the human oddity that Karol encounters in his progress towards riches (I especially liked the crusty old peasant who hesitates at a tempting bargain before realising he has a once-in-a- lifetime chance to coin a lot of cash and hoard it all in a little jar). This is one of the world's premier film- makers, so Kieslowski a little below his best is still leagues ahead of almost everyone else around.
Fausto, the week's other new foreign-language release, is a likeable pygmy: a rags-to-riches comedy again, but dripping in whimsy. In Sixties Paris, an orphan becomes the apprentice of an effusive tailor (Jean Yanne, slightly over the top), who realises the future lies not in meticulous suits for the local Jewish community but in his protege's flamboyant avant-garde designs.
The Crow, infamous for the freak accident which killed its star, Brandon Lee, on set, was completed using a range of technical ruses, and presumably part of its macabre attraction is to spot them - difficult, admittedly, since murky lighting and fragmented MTV editing help shroud a multitude of stand-ins and inconsistencies. The story, in which the unquiet soul of a rock musician seeks vengeance against his murderers, now bears the dedication to 'Brandon and Eliza' (the late actor's fiancee), and the tragedy behind it has elevated a trite slab of High Gothic camp into a slice of morbid romanticism. But this was scarcely a film to die for.
Luck, Trust and Ketchup is a Robert Altman primer aimed at devotees of Short Cuts: an above- average 'plugumentary' whose rightful place, you still feel, is on TV (it's shot on video, with a corresponding loss of sound and image quality on the big screen). It is certainly comprehensive, but the enthusiasm palls after 90 minutes - it's a sad truth that disasters (cf Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about Apocalypse Now) are more compelling. But anyone who managed to miss the flood of Altmaniana that accompanied Short Cuts' release might enjoy it.
Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville plays briefly in the ICA's 'City Symphonies' season but this is not the Paris of Breathless - the empty interiors, hotels and lobbies sing of the glories and horrors of Sixties architecture and interior design. It's sci-fi as you have rarely seen it, light years from the glittering tech-noir look that was to dominate the genre for the following two decades.
There was Son in Law. Then there was Man's Best Friend. And now . . . The Air Up There, in which an American basketball scout seeks stars in a remote Kenyan village, joins the contenders for worst film of the year. A village is threatened. The Yank (Kevin Bacon) saves the day. And it all hinges upon a basketball game which, at the last millisecond, our heroes will win by a whisker.
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