Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Birthday Take: Krzysztof Kieslowki in "Red" (1994)

Scene from Red
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Born: June 27, 1941
Died: March 13, 1996 (54 years old)
Nomination: Best Original Screenplay (nominated) for Red

The Take

In the course of cinema's history, there have been few swan songs as poignant as that of Krzysztof Kieslowi. The acclaimed filmmaker had made a career out of exploring rich themes in beautiful yet abstract ways. While it would be enough to suggest that Red was his final film, it feels deceptive to separate it from his other achievements, which all exist within the same landscape. Red is the third film in a trilogy known as The Three Colors Trilogy, focusing on the colors of the French flag. While they don't need to be watched in a specific order (though I personally encourage you to do go chronologically), they do end up becoming a shared universe where characters overlap in subtle ways and the themes dovetail into each other, even if they are tonally different. For instance, Blue is a somber film about grief while White is a comedy about revenge. His range was always impeccable, but his dedication to authenticity is even more astounding.

The one feat that seems a bit novelty but is actually impressive is the cinematography. Along with being named Blue, White, and Red, the films share the visual appearance of their namesakes. Red has a largely red pallet where the protagonist is seen on billboards in red while blowing bubble gum. It's rich with passionate colors that reflect how vibrant its characters lives are. Of the three, it's on the more mature side and also explores things in more complex fashion. Visits to old theaters and the questions of life all feel timely to the director's unfortunate passing. Still, it feels like something bigger about life in general. Red is a film that seeks to show the troubles of the past and the inability to move on. Much like the cinematography, its story is deliberate but powerful, creating a philosophical text that is moving not only within the context of the film, but even strong when placed alongside the rest of the trilogy.

Still, what's most impressive is that an artist has the capability to navigate their own lives through art. How can they say what they need to when life isn't necessarily promised? While Kieslowski's filmography is full of incredible feats (The Dekalog, The Double Life of Veronique), it's still rare for a filmmaker to end on a higher note than their earlier successes. After all, the likes of Hal Ashby or Billy Wilder all faded into lesser work before their deaths. Nothing compared to Being There or The Apartment. Meanwhile, Red is easily among Kieslowski's best work, and captures the essence of him better than one could expect. It is almost as if he directed in a fervor of passion, being at his most creatively free to explore the struggles of life in ways that encapsulated a career. Better yet, it's a miracle that it was meticulously explored in a trilogy that ended up getting him two Oscar nominations - the only two that he ever personally received.

It is disappointing to an extent that certain filmmakers are only recognized after a lengthy career in film. Still, it's more of a relief when it's for a film that is powerful and distinctive. Red famously lost the Palme d'Or to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. While some could argue that the American crime film is more influential, there's no denying that Kieslowski's work has been revered by art house audiences in just the same fashion. The debate over whether Blue or Red is better remains highly contested. Both are great works of art that explore humanity in realistic yet abstract ways that are powerful. However, Tarantino agrees with anyone who thinks that Red was a more deserving movie in 1994. He claimed that it deserved the Palme d'Or over Pulp Fiction. How much of that is just modesty is up for speculation. Still, it's a sign of respect for an incredible filmmaker that made a difference.

As we go through our lives, one could only hope to have a career as fruitful and realized as Kieslowski. He managed to show a side of humanity in artistic fashion, even taking very old themes and finding modern interpretations for them. Even if his work can be described as being antithetical to the genre norms, he treated everything reverently and showed the complexity of life through art. It not only works as breathtaking cinema, but also as a metaphor for his own autumn years. One can only hope to have a career end on such a poignant note as he did. Maybe it wouldn't be as philosophically rich as Red, but hopefully it will get the respect it deserves and shows the life of a fulfilled artist, and not one who peaked long ago. Red is a powerful film that shows the potential of what exploring themes within a trilogy could be. They can be connected without being continual. They can explore the many facets of life in nuanced detail. It's all possible, as long as we know to look for it. 

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