Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Ingmar Bergman | 4 episodes (57min – 1hr 32min) or 3hr 8min (theatrical cut)

There is a whimsical horror threaded through Fanny and Alexander that only its ten-year-old protagonist grapples with – at least to begin with. He gazes at his toy paper theatre illuminated by nine flickering candles, before wandering around an exquisitely cluttered apartment draped in red, green, and gold fabrics, framing him like a lost child in a world of endless possibilities. He calls out to his family’s maids, but no one replies. The clock chimes three, a set of cherubs rotate on a music box, and a half-nude marble statue in the corner slowly begins to dance. Then, a soft scraping noise emerges beneath the eerie melody, and we catch a glimpse of a scythe being dragged across the carpet. The grim reaper has arrived, but not for young Alexander. Though this magical realist prologue might be the most undiluted manifestation of his vivid imagination that we witness, the heavy presence of death underlies all 5 hours of this Gothic family drama set in 1900s Sweden, marking his childhood with both merciless damnation and divine salvation.

A fantastical prologue setting up Alexander, his imagination, and the huge, magnificent apartment of his grandmother, Helena. Drapes of green and gold hang over cased openings and windows, creating immaculate frames all through the interior space.

In the haunted Christmastime setting of Fanny and Alexander’s opening, an air of Dickensian fantasy settles over the extended Ekdahl family, revelling in the warm festivities of their annual traditions. Religious celebrations and commemorations form the basis of these gatherings, and often mark key narrative beats through funerals, weddings, and christenings. Accompanying these occasions are large meals spread across expansive dining tables, though none are so magnificent as the spread on Christmas Eve night which dominates the first act of the film.

Here, Ingmar Bergman delights in splendidly designed sets of vivid crimson hues, weaved all through the patterned wallpaper, long candlesticks, velvet curtains, and holiday decorations. With such a dominant primary colour commanding the mise-en-scène, there are abundant opportunities for his regular cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, to embellish it with small flourishes of emerald-green, popping out in festive wreaths, holly, and indoor plants that frequently hang in the foreground of his compositions, snugly crowding out the space.

Simply one of Bergman’s finest achievements in production design, dotting his rooms with candles and festive decor, and filling them out with red, green, and gold hues in stunning arrangements. These shots are cluttered but cosy, immersing us into 1900s Sweden.

Matching his rich use of colour is Bergman’s impeccable staging of his large ensemble, defining the status and identity of each character by their position within immaculately staged shots of family unity, habitually framed within those elegantly draped arches between rooms or around overflowing dining tables. The camera glides gracefully through crowded rooms, each one warmly illuminated by the yellow light of chandeliers and oil lamps. At times it simply soaks in the splendid décor and delectable meats, or it will otherwise latch onto family members as they make their way through the vast yet intimate apartment of their widowed matriarch, Helena.

Warmth and unity in Bergman’s blocking during the first act over Christmas Eve, bringing the entire extended Ekdahl family together within gorgeously composed frames.
A noticeable shift in the staging following the death of Oskar – reserved distance between each family member, each relegated to their own position and pose.

Within their local community, the Ekdahl family are known for owning the local theatre and staging annual nativity plays, and for as long as they all remain out in open living areas, we continue to witness those dramatic sensibilities emerge in scenes of poetry recitations and musical performances late into the night. It is when they retreat behind closed doors that these larger-than-life characters begin to reveal personal troubles – Alexander’s uncle, Adolf Gustav, keeps a joyful, cheeky attitude right up until he finds his ego slighted, and Carl Ekdahl possesses significant contempt towards his German wife.

Rich colours and compositions loudly coming through in the Ekdahl family theatre – you can see clearly where they get their flair for dramatics.

It is a lengthy setup which Bergman conducts here, insulating us in these family celebrations like a warm, protective barrier from the freezing snow that blankets the village outside. The touch of poignancy he brings to one conversation between a maid and Alexander’s cousin, Jenny, about Christmas being a difficult time for people with bad memories especially foreshadows the poor misfortune which is about to strike. These children may not understand that concept yet, but upon the death of Oskar, Alexander’s father, Bergman slowly sinks us into a despairing grief that dwarfs any of the issues which previously existed on the fringes of this family unit. He first collapses during a rehearsal of Hamlet, quite appropriately while playing the father’s ghost in the scene in which he visits his son. The narrative that follows is heavily Shakespearean in both structure and characterisation, though in place of an evil uncle swooping in and taking the crown, here it is a bishop marrying Alexander’s mother, Emilie, and whisking her small family away to his cold, bare home.

Even outside the scope of family homes, Bergman finds a bright but chilly beauty in the frozen streets of Sweden.

As the second act commences, Fanny and Alexander becomes an act of catharsis for Bergman, who, in playing to these archetypes of corruption and innocence, reflects large portions of his own childhood. The fond memories of a flawed but welcoming family exist in stark contrast to the oppressive dynamic that pervades the bishop’s home, and caught between the two is the overly active imagination of a boy who struggles to differentiate between fantasy and reality. As such, there is also a distinctly fairy tale quality that takes hold of Fanny and Alexander, accompanying the introduction of the wicked stepfather with ghosts and demons who may very well be directly inspired by those religious tales which the children are raised on. Being deprived of a supportive father figure himself, Bergman carries great empathy for Alexander, understanding his immaturity as a natural stage in his own creative development.

Perhaps it is this lack of emotional inhibition which grants the young boy the means to deal with his grief, letting him lash out in ways which, while not entirely polite, are honest to his own thoughts and feelings. In one evocative scene after he and his sister, Fanny, hear their mother’s guttural cry erupt from somewhere in their grandmother’s apartment, they creep out of bed to peer through the crack of a door, where they see her wailing in private over her husband’s cold body. Unlike Alexander’s coping mechanisms that are freely expressed out into the world, the overwhelming feelings of adults must be repressed to those small, remote corners where no one else can see. This is a lesson that the bishop beats into him even harder, reframing the whimsical fabrications he uses to understand the world as sinister lies that will damn him to hell.

A thin frame caught in the crack of a door, as the children get out of bed to see their deceased father and their wailing mother pacing back and forth.
With a shift in location to the bishop’s house, the splendid drapes and decor of the Ekdahl home is replaced with austere, colourless walls and quiet, unwelcoming dinners. Not a trace of eye contact to be found in these family gatherings.

The move from Helena’s vibrant, festive home of expressionistic décor to the stark white halls of the bishop’s Spartan house lands with a quiet dread, and with it comes a shift in Bergman’s approach to blocking. Gone are the large family gathering of characters arranged in relaxed formations across plush couches and dining halls. These rooms are made of stone and wood, unembellished and projecting a cold hostility as the bishop exerts physical dominance over every communal space. His demand that Emilie and her children lose all their old possessions as if “newly born” is delivered with a faint chill, forcing them to conform to the image of sparse minimalism he prescribes to, though this attempt at rewriting their identities is only the start of a long line of abuses. Bergman goes on to capture the devastating isolation that is wreaked upon the young siblings with compositions that close them up inside bleak, angular frames, gazing out the windows of their depressing bedroom and, in one scene, crumpling Alexander on the grey, dusty floor of the attic beneath a fallen crucifix, as if slain by a domineering force of spiritual corruption.

Bergman shoots the bishop’s house like a prison with desolate compositions like these.
A fallen crucifix and the crumpled body of Alexander, banished to the attic for his disobedience.

Perhaps the single unifying stylistic device carried through all Bergman’s settings though is his staging of actors in still poses like subjects of a painting, particularly focusing on the thoughtful arrangements of their faces that reveal just as much as their expressions. As Oskar lays on his deathbed, his face turned to the side to face the camera, Emilie’s profile leans up against his cheek in pensive mourning, simultaneously revealing both the intimacy of their final days of marriage, and the tension that is pulling them apart. In contrast, a later shot at the bishop’s house which frames Fanny, Alexander, and Emilie lying on their sides in bed captures them all looking towards the camera, united in their melancholy. With each face slightly obscuring the one behind it, Emilie is set up at the back as the quiet protector of her children, shielding them from the bishop who stands alone and unfocused in the background.

As always, it is the way Bergman shoots arrangements of faces that uncovers the subtlest emotions. Not just the physical blocking, but the lighting and angles as well.

Jan Malmsjö brings a sadistic venom to this role, though he takes care to only reveal his villainy gradually. His first handling of Alexander’s lies is stern but relatively fair, keeping us at a distance from the bitter, angry man who lies beneath his cool veneer. It is initially hard to get a good read of him, but by the time we arrive at his next chastisement of Alexander, his malevolence is exceedingly clear. In response to the bishop’s degradation and punishment, the young boy grows more obstinate in his disobedience, and yet even he can only stand so many beatings before being forced into submission. Watching on, Fanny silently recoils from the bishop’s touch, and Emilie’s contempt for her husband grows. With all paths of escape cut off, they become a broken, trapped family, suffering in an austere hellhole.

Alexander facing the bishop’s wrath, isolated even from his own sister in this shot while the bishop sits back with his family.

Across these early adolescent years of torment, Alexander catches visions of his father’s ghost walking through hallways, bearing witness to the depression left behind in his wake. These transcendent experiences are not limited to his son though, as late in the film Oskar also appears to Helena, his bereaved mother, and simply sits with her as she delivers an eloquent soliloquy on the process of accepting her grief.

“Life, it’s all acting anyway. Some roles are nice, other not so nice. I played a mother. I played Juliet and Margareta. Then suddenly I played a widow or a grandmother. One role follows the other. The thing is not to shrink from them.”

Oskar’s ghost manifesting to both Alexander and Helena, always in his white suit and silently pacing the halls of the family home.

And yet, even as an actress with a deeper understanding of the human condition than her grandson, Alexander, the pain is no less present.

“My feelings came from deep in my body. Even though I could control them, they shattered reality, if you know what I mean. Reality has remained broken ever since… and oddly enough, it feels more real that way. So, I don’t bother to mend it.”

Bergman’s screenplay flows like poetry through these thoughtful contemplations of life-changing events, and yet as this epic drama comes to a close and releases Alexander from the bishop’s tight, suffocating grip, only four words are used to punctuate its ending with a lingering thread of trauma. Though the bishop and his family have perished in the blaze of an incidental fire that obliterated their home like a hellish condemnation, his ghost lives on in Alexander’s mind, cruelly pushing him to the ground and taunting him.

“You can’t escape me.”

Surreal visions emerging at moments when Alexander is particularly overcome with emotion. They range from being deeply wondrous as he listens to a story and is transported to a new location, to downright creepy as the bishop’s maid, Justina, lurches towards him with bleeding palms from stigmata.

The fantastical imagination of Bergman’s young protagonist is evidently as dangerous as it is enchanting, filtering the world through a lens that distorts every intense emotional experience into a memory that will never fade away. Though it manifests primarily as supernatural creatures and visions, it is also baked right into those dazzling bursts of colour that decorate his mise-en-scène, leaping out like nostalgic recollections of a youth that was only partially lived in the real world. By simply dwelling within this perspective, Fanny and Alexander becomes a deeply sentimental work, and through its profound dreams Bergman crafts a magnificent distillation of childhood wonder and terror.

A return to normalcy, though with a change in decor – the reds and greens of Christmas Eve are replaced with pastels to represent a christening, signifying a birth and renewal within the Ekdahl family.

Fanny and Alexander is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Top Gun (1986)

Tony Scott | 1hr 50min

There is something a little wistful in the opening exposition of Top Gun, informing us of the elite school established by the United States Navy to train the next generation of fighter pilots. It describes aerial combat as a “lost art”, practiced only by the select few men who graduate and go on to serve their nation. Before we are allowed to witness it in action though, Tony Scott leads into it with a slow, steady build, setting silhouettes of jets and pilots warming up on the tarmac against a burnt orange sky and low horizon. The early morning light is delicately diffused softly through a light mist, and then, as these men finally take off, so too does the film, playing out a montage of aerial sequences as exhilarating as they are immaculately executed.

The first time ‘Danger Zone’ turns up in Top Gun’s soundtrack, it comes as a rousing though affectionately cheesy underscore to this opening adrenaline rush, aggressively warning us of the thrills and terror to be found in this line of work. After the fifth time it plays, it hits a point of diminishing returns, edging from tactfully familiar to plainly over-used. Still, the visual awe of the tight jet formations that the song accompanies and Scott’s decision to fix his camera to plane cockpits never quite grows stale, flying us through their air with no regards to gravity or orientation. Whether these pilots are simply playing around, running drills, or engaging in real aerial combat, he keeps up an elated energy in his editing and camerawork, skilfully controlling the tension and release of every manoeuvre his characters execute.

When it comes to defining those characters, Scott opts for clean, memorable archetypes, each one embodied in their call name. There is little that the moniker Maverick leaves up to the imagination when we first meet Tom Cruise’s charming daredevil, and his rival, Iceman, similarly takes his title from his flying style and attitude, remaining cool under pressure and persistently wearing down opponents. Goose rounds out our trio of main pilots here, though joining in as Maverick’s love interest and instructor, Charlie, is Kelly McGillis, offering up a chemistry with Cruise that save even some of the corniest scenes.

Where ‘Danger Zone’ marks Top Gun’s aerial sequences, ‘Take My Breath Away’ is assigned to its romantic narrative thread, and is pulled off to greater effect if only for its slightly less prominent and more varied use. Its introductory riff often teases the sexual tension between Cruise and McGillis as they edge towards a consummation, but it isn’t until Scott brings us into that dark bedroom with dim blue light filtering through its curtains that it is played in full. In the silhouettes of bodies and faces inching closer together, Scott marks another key narrative development with visual splendour, opting for raw emotional power over any eloquent verbal expressions of love.

It is a fortunate thing too given how Top Gun’s screenplay tends to bog it down in plotting that is so signposted one could count down the seconds until the next plot point. Perhaps the main exception to this though is the heartbreaking midpoint turn, which sees Goose killed during a particularly dangerous training session. The weight that this holds over Maverick’s character arc from this point on is significant, tempering his reckless confidence with a great deal of guilt, and re-asserting the stakes that come with aerial combat.

Cruise carries this drastic shift well, shifting seamlessly from his charming action star persona into a broken man grappling with the realisation that his defining gift is also his downfall. Had the chemistry of Top Gun been slightly different with Cruise or Scott replaced by a lesser actor or director, it could have edged entirely into the realm of tacky entertainment, devoid of any redeeming qualities. As it is though, it stands as an admirable piece of action cinema, lifting the genre up to new heights and coasting along on its electrifying pacing.

Top Gun is currently streaming on Stan, Binge, and Paramount Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

No End (1985)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 49min

Even for Krzysztof Kieslowski, No End is an exceedingly sombre affair, exhuming the voice of a recently departed lawyer and haunting his widowed wife, Ulla, with visions of his apparition. It has been four days since Antek’s passing, as he informs us in the opening minutes, and he has borne witness to all of it, from the immediate aftermath of his heart attack right through to his funeral. Behind him, Ulla lies motionless on their bed, incapacitated from the grief. Elsewhere, his final client sits in prison awaiting trial, having illegally organised a factory strike after the introduction of martial law. Along two parallel paths, Kieslowski follows both the personal and political implications of Antek’s untimely death, binding them together under the shadow of Poland’s Communist authoritarianism.

Though he is our entryway into this story, Antek steps to the side right after his monologue, from this point on only appearing as a mysterious presence vaguely interfering with the lives of those he left behind. His impact is ambiguous, implicitly leaving a red question mark on a legal document and making a fellow lawyer drop his watch. Even when we do see him, his appearances are often only fleeting. While Ulla meditates, his hand slips into the foreground to pick up a glass before retreating, and later when she is describing his presence to someone else, Kieslowski cuts away to his hands playing with the holes in her stockings.

The longer she mourns, the greater her love for him grows, but she also evidently has trouble expressing this to anyone. In one scene that sees her sleep with an English tourist, she is driven to tell him of the powerful union she shared with Antek, though only in Polish so that he cannot understand. Perhaps Kieslowski himself is making a point here about the inherently unique and honourable qualities of Poland’s Solidarity movement, which Antek embodies. The crushing loss of this Polish push for workers’ rights and social change simply cannot be comprehended by anyone not directly affected by it.

It is in the courtroom drama side of No End that Kieslowski elucidates this metaphor a little more, centring Artur Barciś and Aleksander Bardini respectively as a political dissident and his new lawyer. Both men would later go on to play significant roles in Kieslowski’s Dekalog series, particularly Barciś who bears witness to each individual episode as a silent, supernatural entity. In the role of No End’s Darek, that neutrality is exchanged for fervent passion, trying to make himself a martyr of the suppressed Solidarity trade union that was rapidly terminated by the Polish government’s imposed martial law. Here, the ghost of Antek serves as an even greater reminder of that pacifist resistance movement, physically absent yet still active in the minds and memories of Poles.

Though Darek’s lawyer, Labrador, possesses a warmth and genuine desire to help his client, his convictions are not as strong as his predecessor’s. He wins Darek’s case, and yet it doesn’t feel like victory. There is nothing brave or impressive about a Solidarity leader getting off with a slap on the wrist. As Antek stands in the courtroom with them, the insignificance of this entire trial gradually sets in.

In constructing an allegorical narrative with so few direct representations of Poland’s political landscape, Kieslowski often keeps No End at an intellectual distance from audiences wishing to grasp its historical details. Due to censorship, the word “Solidarity” is not even mentioned anywhere in this screenplay. Where it does connect is in its solemn representations of devastating political defeat, likening it to the death of a loved one and the hopeless depression that follows.

It sinks in very subtly, but this despair does take root in this ensemble of subdued performances and Zbigew Preisner’s slow, grim music. If No End is a eulogy, then his church choir, strings, woodwinds, and organ make up a liturgical underscore, ploughing along in grave unison as if brought together under a common cause of shared melancholy and reverence. Just as these musical instruments move as one through haunting minor progressions, too does this overwhelming sense of loss spiritually unite Kieslowski’s characters throughout the film, together commemorating a death that carries demoralising implications across multiple levels of society.

No End is currently streaming on Mubi and The Criterion Channel.

Blind Chance (1981)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 54min

Had the first and final shots of Blind Chance been cut, the film could have been a pure examination of three alternate timelines, branching off from a singular point in one man’s life when he is at his lowest and most impressionable. With context of these bookends, everything we see is reframed under the umbrella of impending mortality and heavy regrets which may flash past our eyes in half a second before our death. What small actions could have we done differently that might have set us on a different path, leading us away from our current lives? For Witek, this is a question that arises every now and again as a passing thought. What if he never reconnected with his old school friend and found God? What if he were not there to save that old lady from being run over? It is only when Witek ponders the greatest one of all – what if his attempt to catch a train years ago had turned him away from the path to his own demise – that the rumination over what could have been becomes an all-consuming thought, manifesting as fully developed realities.

The opening and closing shots of this film – everything else could be a vision conjured up in those dying seconds.

That fateful run towards a departing train is the tiny action upon which everything hinges for Witek. Or to narrow in even further, his outcome is even more minutely determined by his attitude towards a man carrying a beer, which only minutes earlier was purchased with a coin that he knocked from a woman’s hand while in a mad rush to get to the platform. Played three times over with minor adjustments, these nearly identical scenes either see Witek successfully catch the train, be arrested for causing a public disturbance, or miss it and go on with his life.

With this divergence of possible futures catching him at his lowest point when he is most open to embracing new ideologies, the broad swings we witness in his character are monumental. Should he make the train, he will meet an influential Communist thinker, and conform to the party thinking. Should he be arrested, he will meet a priest who drafts him into the anti-Communist resistance. Should he go on with life as normal, he will remain politically neutral, falling back into the medical school that he previously decided to quit, and eventually starting a family.

In each timeline, it is an older man who comes into Witek’s life as a patriarchal figure, offering the sort of guidance that he no longer receives from his recently deceased father. In his father’s ambiguous final words, “You don’t have to,” there is a vague absence of any specific instruction – he doesn’t have to what exactly? With the heavy weight of uncertainty leaving Witek aimlessly drifting, he finds himself lost in a modern world of competing priorities, distractions, and relationships, and thus looking for something to hang his identity on.

In 1981, Krzysztof Kieslowski was similarly on the verge of his own transition, contemplating a shift from the familiar realm of social realism to a more transcendent style with broader, more metaphysical ambitions. Blind Chance falls right in the midst of it, aiming to probe questions of fate just as much as it seeks to examine the radical political landscape of 1980s Poland. Inadvertently, it was these revolutionary sentiments which led to the film’s censoring by Polish authorities, from which it never fully recovered. Even today, there is a single unrecovered scene still missing from the final cut.

In exposing the flimsiness of such fervent followers, Kieslowski manages to rile up both sides of the political aisle, though in the mind of the dying Witek who safely straddled the fence, there is some question as to whether some sort of whole-hearted political commitment might have changed his life for the better. His life is not one of significant introspection, but with a director as thoughtful as Kieslowski behind the camera, fleeting hints of self-reflection manage to break through Witek’s mindless surrender of his own agency. Later in his career, Kieslowski would perfect the art of the symbolic cutaway and weave them in as constant motifs through his work, and here we see an early glimpse of that, following a slinky tumble down a set of stairs. “It’s like it died,” he reflects as it reaches the bottom, and perhaps in that moment he sees a piece of himself set on a rigid path that leads nowhere but his own death.

A cutaway to a symbolic slinky, representative of Witek’s path through life.

As each timeline ends in social rejection for Witek, Kieslowski begins to slow down the frame rate until they freeze entirely, anticipating the impending rewind that will take us back to the turning point at the train station. It is notable that he does not return to this device a third time as the last timeline approaches its conclusion. There, Witek arrives at an airport to disembark on a trip to Libya where he will deliver some medical lectures, and much like the ending of Three Colours: Red, he brushes past two characters whose lives he has come close to intersecting with. Given that we have only seen them in alternate timelines, they are simply strangers to him, though both times he does stop and notice their presences.

Kieslowski’s frame rate slowing down until it freezes at the end of the narrative strands, then cutting back to the train station where the new timeline begins.

At first it might seem that he is picking up on something familiar about them on a subconscious level. This is not an unreasonable assumption either, especially considering some of Kieslowski’s later films that imbue characters with intangible, mystical qualities. But if Blind Chance is to be read as a split-second vision conjured up between Witek’s realisation of his death and the explosion of the plane he is on, then perhaps at this point he is simply storing them in his mind as characters for his dream, ruminating over the alternate lives that might have saved him from his tragic fate. It is said that your life flashes before your eyes on the verge of death, and indeed that happens here in the fast-moving character introduction towards the start, but Kieslowski’s sights are not so much set on “what was” than “what could have been” – all those turning points that might have given us happier, or at least longer lives. But then again, what is the use of such regrets anyway if the paths upon which we travel are merely governed by blind chance?

Blind Chance is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Escape From New York (1981)

John Carpenter | 1hr 39min

It is 1997, and Manhattan has been walled off from the rest of America. To deal with a 400% increase in crime, the island has been turned into a giant maximum-security prison, though its inmates are not confined to cells. Inside, gangs and criminals run wild, turning the city into an anarchic playground brimming with violence and chaos. Such a concept as this is all too ripe for a master of genre filmmaking like John Carpenter. Escape From New York is a science-fiction, an action, but most of all it runs by the Western playbook, following those familiar conventions we have seen John Ford and Sergio Leone play out over decades of cinema.

In place of the rocky outcrops of Monument Valley though, we get hulking metal and concrete structures wasting away through an urban wilderness. Instead of dusty saloons with a piano playing in the corner, we get a giant theatre where prisoners take refuge and perform showtunes for the entertainment of others. And where we fight expect to see Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name swaggering through a sandy desert, we instead find Snake Plissken, a cynical, raspy-voiced Special Forces veteran assigned to rescue the President whose flight has crashed right in the middle of the island. Snake’s character design is entirely memorable, and even a little bit ludicrous given his eye-patch and giant snake tattoo, but with Kurt Russell’s terse, rugged performance grounding it with a sense of conviction, Escape From New York hangs in that sweet intersection between playfully outlandish and emphatically sincere.

A solid use of miniatures to create a dystopian New York in wonderful establishing shots.

With a timer strapped to his wrist counting down to his death should he fail his mission, and a stealth glider landing him on top of the World Trade Centre, Snake goes about tracking down the kidnapped President through Manhattan in the dead of night. From the gloomy establishing shots of New York enclosed by a prison wall to the harsh, metallic angles of its architecture, Carpenter accomplishes quite a feat of world-building production design. His work with miniatures to build towering cityscapes effectively deliver on the epic scale of Snake’s quest, though it is especially in the rundown streets lit only by stray fires and scattered with abandoned cars that we feel ourselves truly overtaken by New York’s labyrinth of concrete and steel monstrosities.

With his dystopian mise-en-scène offering itself up to striking compositions of our hero and his ragtag posse of oddball characters wandering the decrepit landscape, Carpenter crafts a hostile environment that, for all its misery and decay, is also a culture full of living people. On either side of the Duke of New York’s car, a pair of chandeliers stand as a small show of status, announcing themselves as sophisticated oddities in a wretched terrain. Back at his headquarters, death matches are conducted for the perverse pleasure of his gang members, asserting their own dominance over outsiders with what little resources they have.

Detail in Carpenter’s mise-en-scène – the turned over cars rising out of the landscape like outcrops, and the dilapidated architecture of New York closing around Snake and his gang like a labyrinth of buildings and bridges.

Across it all, Carpenter drenches his world in the pervasive darkness of night. It is telling that when the sun inevitably rises, Snake is conveniently knocked unconscious so we can cut straight to the following evening. Escape From New York thrives in its nocturnal setting, surrounding its plot with a powerfully grim atmosphere that creeps into the crevices between every action set piece and thrilling dramatic turn.

In the contempt that Snake holds towards the government officials that he is working for, we see a glimpse of the America that lies just beyond New York. That the wealthy elite care so little about what takes place inside the boundaries of this giant prison is evident in how willingly the President brushes off his experience afterwards, despite experiencing legitimate traumas. For Snake Plissken though, this bleak hellhole of urban ruin and chaos is where he finds himself most at home, wandering the most dangerous frontiers of modern society.

This wasteland is brimming with culture – death matches caught in these superbly blocked compositions.

Escape From New York is currently available to stream on Stan, Binge, and Foxtel Now, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Body Heat (1981)

Lawrence Kasdan | 1hr 53min

It is even before Body Heat reaches the pivotal murder upon which its entire narrative revolves that the Double Indemnity influence emerges in the sensual rhythms of its dialogue, with every line seeming to be either an innuendo or a coy setup for one. All of it seeps with sexual desire, the heavy flirting underscored by sleazy saxophone riffs which might seem heavy-handed if it didn’t so perfectly match the embellished eroticism of the performances and screenplay. Where Billy Wilder had to work within the strict Production Code of the 1940s to create Double Indemnity, Lawrence Kasdan abides by no such restrictions here, playing into both the literal and suggestive readings of his film’s title to draw us into its irresistible allure.

A pervasive red colouring through the lighting – heat and passion rendered cinematically.

The perspiration that coats the faces of every single character in Body Heat can be put down to the particularly intense heatwave rolling through South Florida, but when smooth-talking lawyer Ned begins a secretive affair with Matty, the wealthy wife of a successful businessman, the beads of sweat that roll down his naked body might as well be from the sexual workout and thick humidity of their steamy encounters. It is just as well he has two solid reasons to be so clammy all the time, because when his private entanglement takes a plunge into murder and betrayal, the sweat from his guilty conscience is well-disguised. It is with our own understanding of Ned’s tainted conscience that we can see the fear in his eyes, and William Hurt expertly balances this highly-strung apprehension with the cool charm of his vain, lustful lawyer.
 
But it is Kathleen Turner who truly runs away with this film, playing the Barbara Stanwyck to Hurt’s Fred MacMurray. Somehow though, this femme fatale is even more cunning and careful in her plotting than Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson. Like a true student of film noir, Kasdan illustrates character detail in his work with shadows and blocking, especially as he gradually reveals Matty to be the sort of untouchable figure twenty steps ahead of everyone else. As she walks away from Ned into the boathouse she has rigged to explode, she is consumed by the darkness, and yet within this void she glows brightly like an angelic icon, finally freed from the constraints of a life she has been trying to escape for years.

An angelic white figure disappearing into the darkness.

Perhaps the shocking ending which sees her emerge on top is Kasdan’s apologetic rewriting of historical genre conventions, which typically saw these intelligent women punished for their underhanded manipulations. Matty may not be a morally pure character, but who is in this world? If anyone is going to get their happy ending, why shouldn’t it be the one with the wits, charm, and patience to get it? Body Heat surely isn’t the first film to push the boundaries of the neo-noir, but it may one of the most overwhelmingly passionate, filling its air with a thick, humid wantonness that only one of its many characters truly knows how to navigate.

Superb blocking through Venetian blinds and mirrors.

Body Heat is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

Dekalog (1989)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 10 episodes (53 – 58min)

Dekalog: OneDekalog: TwoDekalog: ThreeDekalog: FourDekalog: Five
Dekalog: SixDekalog: SevenDekalog; EightDekalog: NineDekalog: Ten

Inside the high-rise Warsaw apartment building of the Dekalog, there lives an entire community of strangers and sinners. They may not all know each other’s names or understand troubles beyond their own, but every day they pass by each other in the foyer, lift, and street, nodding politely and exchanging a few words before moving on. The perspective that Krzysztof Kieslowski grants us into their lives in his anthology film series is omniscient. Behind each door in this towering complex is a new morality tale with some basis in the Ten Commandments, though the didacticism is rarely so blunt as those single-line imperatives.

Theological Renaissance art is his inspiration, and with that in mind he goes about creating a cinematic equivalent to a series of paintings depicting the commandments, though with a distinctly more modern, ambiguous flavour. Just as significant as the maintenance of these commandments is the difficulty of upholding them with complicated contemporary pressures. The history, culture, law, relationships, and technology of late-Communist Poland manifest in unexpected ways, and at the centre of them all is that giant, concrete piece of architecture, making a statement of both insulated loneliness and hidden interconnectedness.

A giant, austere housing project as common location across the episodes, an apt representation of interconnected neighbours living private, sinful lives.

With this apartment building acting as a common setting for the entire series, Kieslowski goes about using an array of different cinematographers to imbue each episode with a distinct style, emphasising the individuality of each perspective they bring. The effect is powerful, if a little inconsistent – some dialogue-heavy episodes do not feature the same cinematic bravado as the more aesthetically defined instalments, but there still always remains a steady awareness of how they all fit together. Though Dekalog: One and Three are both set in the freezing winter, the latter has a distinctly more festive tone in the red lighting and mise-en-scène, and Dekalog: Five acts as a visual highlight of the series in its jaundiced, sickly colouring, turning Warsaw into a rotten wasteland.

Entirely distinct visions of Warsaw, Poland through different episodes, each one offering a separate artistic perspective to suit its commandment.

In spite of these stylistic differences, there is a formal consistency in the specific motifs and themes which emerge across their studies of moral duty, faith, and parenthood. The family unit is an especially important foundation for Kieslowski’s moral tales, as mothers and fathers constantly fumble in their attempts to raise their children. Milk acts as a symbol of nourishing life here, suggesting the ways in which motherhood and innocence might play into these situations whether as an attempt to breastfeed a baby or a carton that has gone sour. Where parents aren’t making mistakes, they are often entirely absent, leaving behind spiritual holes begging to be filled in by God the Father and the Mother Mary. Dekalog: One does well to set this up with a hopeful depiction of Our Lady of Częstochowa in its conclusion, and it is similarly tied up in the final episode where two brothers are led down the road of Cain and Abel without the guidance of their now-deceased father.

Mothers and fathers often act as a foundation of Kieslowski’s moral tales, whether they are flawed humans, venerated religious icons, or absent figures.

Perhaps the most potent recurring motif though as that of the mysterious, silent spectator played by Artur Barciś in eight of the ten episodes. He never speaks, but he is often present at key moments where major decisions must be made. Though he often goes unnoticed, every so often he catches the eye of a character who finds themselves inexplicably disturbed or haunted by his presence, whether he is appearing as a tram driver, a university student, or a homeless man. He is not a force of good or evil, but much like us, he hangs over this series as an omniscient figure, seeing into the souls of these characters but never intervening. For all its grounding in the authentic history and culture of 1980s Poland, the Dekalog remains a mystical piece of theological cinema, holding us back from accepting any individual narrative as the singular truth by instead delivering a more transcendent perspective akin to that of an all-seeing deity.

Artur Barciś as the silent witness in eight of the ten episodes. Is he an angel, demon, or simply an audience surrogate, pushing in on these stories with his omniscient, unwavering gaze?

Dekalog: One – “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”

There are a series of bizarre, almost supernatural occurrences that presage the devastating blow which Dekalog: One delivers in its final act, but atheistic professor Krzysztof is not one to consider the meaning of clues or symbols beyond those which scientific studies tell him. His son, Paweł, possesses a similar curiosity about the world, though he is often only left confused when his father and his devout aunt, Irena, offer two separate paths to find the answers he seeks.

Kieslowski is heavily symbolic in his imagery, most evidently in his portrayal of Krzysztof’s computer as an ethereal, holy force. It illuminates Krzysztof and Paweł’s apartment with a dim, green glow, and although it represents the rigid rules of science, there is still a mystical sentience to its actions, seemingly turning on of its own accord and mysteriously telling them “I am ready.”

Krzysztof’s downfall comes not from using its calculations, but rather placing so much faith in them that he rejects all other signs which contradict them. When a bottle of blue ink topples over without reason and spreads across his paper like an ominous, expanding lake, he brushes it off. Neither do the sirens outside alert him to anything wrong, or the talk of a local child going missing. Gradually, anxiety sets in, and he finally reaches a reckoning with his faithlessness when his worst fears are confirmed by his own two eyes.

Running from the green glow of the computer and the icy blue lake where his nightmares have manifested, an empty church offers itself for his outpouring of anger and grief. The venerated icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa that stands up on the altar acts as somewhat of a substitute for the absence of a mother figure elsewhere in this episode, and as he topples tables and candles, she remains standing straight, bearing the brunt of his grief with only a few drops of wax trickling down her face like tears. Dekalog: One is particularly didactic in its narrative, and yet Kieslowski’s beautifully spiritual metaphors imbues it with a remarkable visual power that underscores the crisis of faith at its centre.

Dekalog: Two – “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

In a hospital room where water drips down cracked and peeling walls, a man’s life hangs in the balance. The sound design might reminisce Tarkovsky in the ever-present trickling, but the abstract cutaways are truly Kieslowski, using micro representations of humanity to bring spiritual stakes to Andrzej’s survival. Later in this episode we will watch a bee crawl up out of a glass of preserved strawberries, offering him a hopeful symbol of rebirth as he returns from the “beyond”, but until then, it is a journey of frightening uncertainty.

For Andrzej’s wife, Dorota, his survival will determine the fate of her unborn baby. Should he live, then she will choose to abort it as it belongs to another man; if he dies, then she will become the mother she always wanted to be. It is a torturous situation she finds herself in, and in small outbursts she acts out, snapping the leaves of a houseplant and pushing a glass off a table just so she can assert some kind of agency. In her mind, the major decision regarding her pregnancy is beyond her control given its dependency on Andrzej’s survival, and so as if to place it in the hands of the doctor, she demands a prognosis.

It is here that the second commandment manifests in an understated manner, in which the doctor falsely swears an oath that Andrzej is almost completely likely to die. In contrast to his first episode, Kieslowski allows a little more of an understanding into the mind of the primary ‘sinner’, and as such Dekalog: Two takes a slightly more nuanced position in understanding how the modern age continues to complicate these ancient laws.

Dekalog: Three – “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.”

At first, it does not seem like Dekalog: Three carries the same life or death stakes as the previous two episodes. Its narrative is far more subdued, involving us in two ex-lovers’ search for a missing husband on Christmas Eve, though at the same time Kieslowski steps up his visuals in this instalment, using cinematographer Piotr Sobociński to illuminate these icy Polish streets with the red glow of festive lights. Much of the time they appear as pinpoints adorning scraggly Christmas trees, piercing through beautifully austere aerial shots, though every so often Kieslowski will also bounce them off reflective surfaces or illuminate faces in close-ups, making for a beautiful reminder of the religious holiday that the episode takes place over.

It is this Christmas setting that is absolutely integral to Kieslowski’s figurative reading of the commandment his episode is based on. Here, the Sabbath represents any holy day one sets aside to reflect on their own faith and spend time with loved ones, and initially taxi driver Janusz appears to recognise the significance of this in taking time off work. It is when he attends midnight Mass and runs into Ewa, a woman from his past, that he becomes distracted, and the two embark on an Odyssey-like journey to find her husband who has mysteriously disappeared.

On their journey, they encounter a series of minor characters still working on this sacred night, unable to take time off due to the necessity of their jobs, and this pattern subtly underscores Janusz and Ewa’s own fickle distractions. A late-game revelation turns their entire quest on its head as a heavy fog of death and depression gathers over it, but much like other Dekalog episodes, there is also a counterpoint of hope and redemption to tie it off. Though directly contravening the third commandment and abandoning his spiritual duties, surely there is some salvation for Janusz in helping Ewa fulfil her own?

Dekalog: Four – “Honour thy father and thy mother.”

Even considering the moral complexities that have arisen elsewhere in the Dekalog, the fourth episode breaches thornier territory than ever in its study of a Freudian relationship between a father and daughter. Just as there is an absence felt by a deceased mother in the family dynamic of Dekalog: One, Kieslowski again leaves an empty space here with a letter from Michal’s wife, who passed away a few days after the birth of her daughter, Anka. It is only meant to be read after Michal has passed too, but impatient to hear her mother’s words, she opens it prematurely, and suddenly both parent and child find their relationship tested in the most uncomfortable manner.

As the two discuss the possibility that they may not be related, Kieslowski sends them in an elevator right to the bottom of their apartment building, where two candles burn in the darkness like a small chapel. From this point on, Kieslowski’s lighting grows darker, starkly illuminating their apartment with lamps that cast bright beams and shadows across their faces in the midst of arguments and heartfelt pleas. Elsewhere in the unit, a smashed glass door that Michal kicked earlier out of anger sits un-mended, their interior world collapsing around them.

As sinful as his characters are, Kieslowski never condemns them with righteous retribution, but rather takes the time to understand how their flaws are integral parts of their messy humanity. Perhaps our understanding of Anka early on as a drama student with a deep interest in drawing out hidden truths from lies should clue us into her own propensity for falsehoods, but even when this is revealed we don’t find ourselves mad at her. Instead, all we see is a father and daughter trying to figure themselves out, eventually choosing to preserve their own innocent relationship over any secrets that could potentially destroy it.

Dekalog: Five – “Thou shalt not murder.”

When Kieslowski created his Dekalog series with the intention of making ten one-hour episodes, he was pushed by TV Poland to expand two into full-length feature films. Dekalog: Five thus became A Short Film About Killing, as well as the strongest instalment in the series, disturbing our senses in both style and narrative while taking on the Fifth Commandment as its focus.

Read my full review for the theatrical cut of this episode here.

Dekalog: Six – “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Much like Dekalog: Five, the sixth episode of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Ten Commandments-inspired series was expanded into a feature film, giving us A Short Film About Love. The Hitchcockian setup is very familiar – a man with a telescope spying from their apartment into a neighbour’s unit, developing an unhealthy obsession with their life – and yet in place of a suspenseful mystery leading our young voyeur along, Kieslowski instead absorbs us in a compelling morality play.

Beyond the fact that both Dekalog: Five and Six were extended into full films, they also make fascinating companion pieces for the formal structuring of their narratives, both being marked by a midpoint turn that instigates a total role reversal for a main character in the final minutes.

Read my full review for the theatrical cut of this episode here.

Dekalog: Seven – “Thou shalt not steal.”

As Kieslowski’s camera descends the side of the Warsaw apartment building in the opening shot of Dekalog: Seven, the sound of a child’s screams can be heard coming from one of its units. Ania, the young girl to whom they belong, clearly has issues of her own, but considerations of what might be best for her are not the concerns of the adults in this story. Her mother, Majka, gave birth to her six years ago while at school, but to protect her from the scandal, her own mother, Ewa, put forward a lie that the two were sisters. Now 22-years-old, Majka resolves they are all old enough for the truth to come out, and goes about kidnapping her daughter to meet her real father, Wotjek.

Kieslowki’s understanding of stealing as a sin within this screenplay is fascinating in its complexity. Perhaps what Ewa did was wrong, exerting her possessiveness over something that was not rightfully hers, and yet at the same time it is evident that Majka is not yet matured to properly care for Ania either. There is a fairy tale quality to the kidnapping that seems to pull the two into a delusional, naïve mindset, as mother and daughter escape into woods where a carousel seems to spring forth from overgrown weeds, and later meet up with Wotjek, who now lives in a small house making teddy bears.

It is in his residence where Majka, desperately trying to recreate the family that should have been, begs for her daughter to call her “Mother”, and yet it is simply too much for Ania to grasp. When Ania’s night terrors emerge again, Majka goes about trying to prove that she does have the capability to quell them as well as Ewa, and yet just like her own mother, it is merely an act of selfish reassurance. Whether one can steal something that belongs to them might be a big question here, and yet Kieslowski also uses Dekalog: Seven to consider the rights of those affected beyond the binary “thief and victim” narrative.

Dekalog: Eight – “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”

Poland’s history feels more immediate here in Dekalog: Eight than in any other instalment of Kieslowski’s series, as the sin in question is one that took place several decades ago during Germany’s occupation of Warsaw. Zofia is a professor of ethics and may in theory be considered the most prepared of any character we have met so far to face questions of integrity, and yet when Elżbieta, a visiting translator, drops in on one of her lectures, a past between them comes to light which begins to wear away at her professional demeanour. In 1943, Elżbieta was a 6-year-old Jewish girl seeking out sanctuary with Zofia’s Catholic family who were also part of the resistance, though after hearing rumours that Elżbieta’s parents were in fact working for the Gestapo, they turned her away.

From God’s eighth commandment, Kieslowski chooses to take the emphasis off “false witness” and place it on “neighbour”, examining the duty of each Christian to not just be honest with friends and strangers, but to accept them as good, honest people as well. Visually, he weaves in shades of green into his mise-en-scène as well, lending an air of natural grace to Zofia’s exercise in the park, and underscoring the two women’s conversation with a merciful renewal in their costuming and the professor’s car. As complicated as their past is together, their efforts to communicate effectively bridge that divide keeping them apart.

In Dekalog: Eight’s understanding of communities as a network of neighbours obligated to help and understand each other, Kieslowski begins to condense broader ideas floating around this series into a cohesive conclusion. The moral dilemma of the doctor and the pregnant woman from episode 2 comes up as a topic in Zofia’s ethics class, and later she acknowledges that they live in the same building as her, where all these stories are set. “Warsaw is a small place,” she states, highlighting the closeness of each life to the others that surround it. When she visits another apartment block, the begrudging man who answers the doors claims that none of his neighbours get along with each other, and while the characters living in Zofia’s complex usually only meet each other tangentially, we still see within this woman an active interest in learning about those around her.

Dekalog: Nine – “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife.”

The main character in Dekalog: Nine is not the transgressor of its primary commandment, and yet the jealousy it implies still weighs heavy in his heart. With the extra emphasis on intimate relations, Kieslowski appropriately makes the most of the apartment block’s architecture and interiors to set scenes of domesticity, shooting his characters through cracks in doorways and reflected in mirrors to both divide and unite them. It also contains some of the strongest images from the series as a whole, in one shot towards the start catching their silhouettes through the building’s glass door against a rainy, blue exterior, coldly isolating them on the border of private and public worlds.

Even in the tight, dark elevator on their way up to their unit, Kieslowski continues to visually separate them with passing lights alternating between their faces, only ever allowing us to see one at a time. A disconnected dynamic is set right away, laying the groundwork for a relationship determined to disintegrate following Roman’s diagnosis of impotence and Hanka’s duplicitous affair. That he has given her permission to cheat on him is negligible – the deception hurts all the same, threatening their marital vow that every intimate part of their lives will be shared together.

By no means is Roman innocent in this situation either. We spend a good deal of time following his sneaking and spying which he also takes some shameful, voyeuristic pleasure from, being unable to perform sexually in the same way as his wife’s lover. With a complex, distant relationship at its core, Dekalog: Nine’s narrative is ripe for superbly staged scenes of tension and conflict, studying the coveting of two men from either side of an extra-marital affair.

Dekalog: Ten – “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods.”

Kieslowski ends his series of contemporary moral fables not with tragedy, but rather with what might almost be considered a dramatic comedy, using Dekalog: Ten to examine the hold of greed over the minds of a pair of brothers. The two couldn’t be more different – where strait-laced businessman Jerzy is strictly no-nonsense, Artur is introduced leading his punk band City Death at a riotous concert, shouting lyrics that are amusingly irreverent and referential to the rest of the series.

“Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill and steal! Commit adultery and covet a whole week long!”

As dissimilar as the brothers may be, having parted ways with each other and their estranged father years ago, they are affected all the same by the discovery of his valuable stamp collection, making them instant millionaires. They also quickly realise that there are men out there with their eyes set on their inheritance, and so the two go about building an intense security system around the apartment. In order to complete a collection of three rare stamps, Jerzy even goes so far as to sell his kidney for the missing piece, quite literally cutting off a piece of his humanity and replacing it with the object of his obsession.

Much like Cain and Abel before them, Jerzy and Artur begin to turn against each other in paranoia, withdrawing from the rekindled connection sparked by their father’s death. Kieslowski does not wish to end the Dekalog with the same disastrous fate that befell those Biblical brothers though. He is an optimist at heart, believing in the potential of humans to reconcile and become better people even if those around them do not. Upon realising that they have simply fallen victim to the crimes of other covetous men, all they can do is laugh at the joyous absurdity of it all – the fruitless sins of humanity, the insignificance of stamps, and the unexpected delight of finding each other again in the midst of it all.

Dekalog is not currently available to stream in Australia.

A Short Film About Love (1988)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 30min

Much like Dekalog: Five, the sixth episode of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Ten Commandments-inspired series was expanded into a feature film, giving us A Short Film About Love. The Hitchcockian setup is very familiar – a man with a telescope spying from their apartment into a neighbour’s unit, developing an unhealthy obsession with their life – and yet in place of a suspenseful mystery leading our young voyeur along, Kieslowski instead absorbs us in a compelling morality play. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is the commandment upon which this instalment is based, though by the end it is evident that his sights are set on the more intricate distinction between sex and love, and the complete denial of the latter.

Before nineteen-year-old Tomek has even spoken to the much-older Magda, he already has a good idea of her life and routine. A series of men come in and out of her apartment looking for sex, and though he admits he used to pleasure himself to the sight, recently he has chosen to turn away. Perhaps he considers this a form of respect or even love, but his stalking continues to take on other forms of harassment – calling her phone without speaking, sending fake postal notices so she visits his workplace, and taking on a job as milkman as an excuse to go to her apartment.

Magda’s face caught in the glass at Tomek’s work, hanging over him like a spectre.

Inside, her unit is shrouded in deep reds, from the hanging artworks and stained windows to the bed sheets and telephone. It isn’t just eye-catching, but entirely beguiling and seductive, capturing the mind and heart of this young man whose experience of the world has largely been confined to this cold, blue corner of Warsaw. As Tomek finds himself being drawn into her burning red orbit, Kieslowski remains composed in his development of both characters, meticulously revealing two opposed yet equally twisted perceptions of love.

A commitment to red decor all through Magda’s apartment, setting her apart from the rest of Tomek’s cold, drab world.

When the two finally converge in that beautiful scarlet room, Kieslowski puts these two ideologies head-to-head – the romanticisation of one-sided affection, and the denial that there is no such thing as love, but only sex. That Magda chooses to engage with Tomek at all after discovering his secret is not just a surprise to us, but to Tomek himself, who completely freezes up after being confronted with a woman significantly more experienced and confident than himself. His fantasy of admiring one from afar cannot stand actual reciprocation, and when he finally experiences an orgasm, she simply leaves him with a crushingly cold statement.

“Love… that’s all it is.”

With that pivotal meeting, Kieslowski begins to set in motion an inversion between both parties. As a devastated Tomek goes home and slits his wrists in a tub, he is now the one surrounded by the red of Magda’s world, with clouds of blood floating through the water. Meanwhile, she finds herself plagued by the guilt of what she has done, and from afar begins to develop her own sort of affection for him. It may not be sexual or romantic, but it is a moving, profound compassion comparable to that of a maternal figure or perhaps a friend, filled with genuine care and a heavy dose of shame.

The red from Magda’s world finding its way into Tomek’s in a violent, bloody narrative turn.

Now in Tomek’s place, longing after another from afar, she visits his apartment. Just as he entered her world and understood her better, now she is entering his to look through his eyes, and in turning both journeys into mirrors of each other Kieslowski finds remarkable narrative form. Through his telescope, she imagines what he might have seen, most significantly the sadness and pain that few others have recognised in her. And then, fully submitting to the fantasy of her love, she envisions him there as well, comforting her at her lowest, and bringing A Short Film About Love to its poignant, hopeful end.

A Short Film About Love is currently streaming on Mubi and The Criterion Channel.

A Short Film About Killing (1988)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 24min

When Krzysztof Kieslowski created his Dekalog series with the intention of making ten one-hour episodes reflecting each of the Ten Commandments, he was pushed by TV Poland to expand two into full-length feature films. Dekalog: Five thus became A Short Film About Killing, as well as the strongest instalment in the series, disturbing our senses in both style and narrative while taking on the Fifth Commandment as its focus: “Thou shalt not murder.”

Though set around the same apartment block as the other episodes, A Short Film About Killing couldn’t have taken a more distinctive aesthetic approach. Kieslowski’s intent to use a different cinematographer in each story often leads to small variations in the aesthetic, but his collaboration here with Sławomir Idziak stands out among them like a grotesque pimple on an otherwise attractive face. This vision of Warsaw is a barren wasteland of mud and shadows, strained through a jaundiced yellowish-green filter that seems to permeate every image with a sickly pestilence. He also lays a vignette effect over virtually every shot of the film, narrowing our field of vision to the characters surrounded by a thick, oppressive darkness. Beneath it all, a chamber ensemble of strings drone with sustained, dissonant chords, heavy with foreboding and a creeping, existential horror.

These characters are often captured as pitch black silhouettes, a hollow emptiness filling their outline.
Thick, mustard colouring pervading this film like a sickness. Though A Short Film About Killing is part of the Dekalog series, it has its own distinctly grotesque aesthetic, and is all the more artistically remarkable for it.

From the opening frames of dead cockroaches, a drowned rat, and a hanging cat, an aura of death immediately settles over the film. We see a group of children running away from the animals, perhaps struck with a guilty realisation of what they have done, though these characters will not our focus. A taxi driver (Waldemar), a young lawyer (Piotr), and a mysterious wanderer (Jacek) are the subjects of our fascination here, each one a stranger to the others, yet unknowingly interweaving their individual paths in a braid of plot threads tightening until they collide over a single incident.

Foreshadowing right from the start. As always, Kieslowski is very purposeful with his symbols, here comparing the disregard of human life to the sadistic torture of animals.

Kieslowski is patient through all of his setup. We know what is coming, if not from the film’s title, then at least from Jacek’s sadistic and bizarre actions. Stand atop an overpass, he throws stones down on cars below. He attacks a stranger in a bathroom who makes a sexual advance. He carries around a metal stick and a rope, waiting for the opportunity to put both to use. Waldemar doesn’t seem all that different, as he leers at young women from his driver’s seat and exerts petty control over who he decides to give rides to. Piotr may be the sole bright light in this desolate landscape, asserting his views against capital punishment during his bar exam and later celebrating his success at a café where he fatefully encounters his future client, Jacek.

When the murder does finally take place, it lands almost exactly at the film’s halfway point, and is dragged out for eight gruelling minutes. Kieslowski doesn’t falter here, using every shot to set in the torture that seems to lack any purpose beyond one man’s instability. In a close-up, Waldemar’s foot hangs limp on a car seat. Below a sickly mustard sky, the taxi lifelessly rolls to a stop. From within the car, we watch Jacek pull the body down to a river through a claustrophobic frame created by the open door, before the wind blows it shut. Still, Waldemar is not yet dead, and with his final breath he begs for his life before a rock is slammed down on his head.

Kieslowski is methodical – eight minutes of torture, watching the murder of this taxi driver with very little dialogue, and every shot contains its own acute depiction of suffering.

That Kieslowski is able to find any shred of pity for Jacek after this point is astounding. It is evident he is not a skilled murderer, as it doesn’t take long before is caught, charged, and sentenced to death. Recognising him from that day in the café, Piotr holds some remorse that he didn’t do something to prevent it, though of course he cannot shoulder any blame for the outcome here. The best he can do is sit down with Jacek and just understand what could have possibly motivated such a disturbing act.

There is a backstory to do with his sister’s death which he feels partially responsible for, but we are not asked to offer him redemption through this alone. It is what comes after that is truly chilling, bringing yet another layer to the Christian commandment against killing. Jacek’s murder at the hands of the state is just as brutal as the one he committed, as he screams and struggles against the firm hold of the guards – and all for what? In the way that Kieslowski presents the complete destruction of two human beings mirrored in both halves, it is tough to reconcile them as being all that different, besides the state considering one abhorrent and the other righteous. Like the rat left in running water and the cat hanging from a noose, these humans are victims of a malevolence that will try to justify the destruction of life, and in the sheer distortion of Kieslowski’s artistry here compared to the other Dekalog episodes, he unnervingly finds the true horror in such a sacrilegious transgression of nature.

You would hope that you are past the worst of it once the first murder is done at the halfway mark, but this ending is just as brutal.

A Short Film About Killing is currently available to stream on Mubi and The Criterion Channel.

A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

Peter Greenaway | 1hr 55min

A Zed and Two Noughts opens and closes with two pairs of deaths, its very structure marked by a symmetry that Peter Greenaway is compelled to tease out in meticulous detail. It is a fixation which extends to the pair of co-dependent twins at the film’s centre, both zoologists who bury themselves in their experiments to cope with the recent losses, attempting to reckon with the very nature of birth and death that spells out the fate of every life on Earth. The other obsession which carries them through is Alba – the woman whose car collision ended both their partners’ lives, and who is now recovering in hospital after having her leg amputated. It is a disturbingly twisted sort of love which forms between the three of them, driven by the same desire to understand that which has ruined their lives.

Opening with a sequence of gorgeous compositions, painting out images of loss and grief as the “ZOO” sign in the background gradually turns off, letter by letter.

But for Oswald and Oliver Deuce, none of their studies or affairs are attempts to achieve some greater power over their own mortality. It is knowledge they crave, sorted by neat labels and classifications. The zoo they work at is the perfect setting for this taxonomical compulsion, where creatures are kept in cages and examined like objects. The zebra becomes a powerful running metaphor for Greenaway, representing the duality of all life in its black and white patterns, as well as in its very name reaching from one end of the alphabet to the other. Later in the film it falls victim to the twins’ experiments, embodying both life and death in its decay, but that isn’t before we watch several other living organisms suffer the same fate in the name of science.

Therein lies the basis of the Deuces’ primary experiments: observing the decomposition of organic matter through time-lapse photography. Greenaway returns to these sped-up sequences over and over, and beneath the decay of plants and animals Michael Nyman’s jaunty score of baroque strings, woodwinds, and harpsichord playfully underscores it all, like a crazed dance growing more frantic with the Deuces’ growing ambitions. Each new subject is a progressively more complex life form than the last, and thus Greenaway sets in motion a formal evolution that we anxiously anticipate will end with the most biologically advanced animal of all.

Excellent form in the repetition of these time-lapse sequences, watching creatures decompose. Also, very confronting as they gradually become more advanced life forms.

In fact, there is very little at all separating these humans from the creatures they pick apart, but it is evident that the Deuces take great comfort in this, using their studies as a way they can understand themselves. It is with this in mind that Greenaway builds an artificially gorgeous world of colour and symmetry around his characters, where they live within perpendicular lines and patterns of duality like zoo animals in enclosures. It is worth drawing comparisons with Michael Powell, another British director who preceded Greenaway by roughly 40 years and who similarly innovated the use of colour in film to draw out the perverse fascinations of his characters, though Greenaway’s designs are a little more ostentatious with their confronting depictions of nudity and body horror.

This is one way to make a background character stand out – dousing them entirely in red costuming and set dressing.

The hospital is one such setting we return to frequently where Greenaway’s visions manifest on a grand scale, enveloping a one-legged Alba in a cavernous white room of clinical curtains and bare furniture, though breaking up the sterility with flower bouquets on a table directly in front of here. Often accompanying these florals are Oswald and Oliver, and even when she eventually moves back home into her spacious pink bedroom Greenaway continues to block them in similarly balanced compositions. Each time we return to this set it is always a little more symmetrical than the last, as these twins gradually merge their styles into one indistinguishable look and Alba eventually decides to have her remaining leg amputated.

The exact same blocking arrangement repeated all through the film – Alba centre frame, and the twins on either side, forming perfectly symmetrical compositions.

Greenaway possesses the sensibilities of both a painter and a scientist, and although this strange mix often creates a cold distance between him and his characters, its precision allows for an intensified focus on their disturbed psyches. It is especially mirrored in the expressionistic laboratory where pulsating pink and blue lights create off-beat visual rhythms with the flashing cameras, each one illuminating an exhibit of decomposing organisms. In one of the few tracking shots present in the film, Greenaway speeds his own camera down a row of these displays, overtaken by the same frenzied excitement as that of our mad scientists.

It can’t be captured in a single image, but the flashing strobe lights at different tempos and colours create a sense of organised chaos in the laboratory.

To them, it is the observation of life and death which gives it meaning, and it is through this reasoning that they try to ensure that they do not live or die in vain, turning one of their cameras on themselves. Greenaway is sure to emphasise a contrarian position here in an ironic twist of fate that sees their camera destroyed, maintaining that while the rules of nature remain unyielding, they serve no spiritual purpose other than the propulsion of its own existence. A creature put on display in a zoo or exhibition is a lonely thing indeed, but as we come to recognise in the final minutes of A Zed and Two Noughts, even lonelier is a creature with no spectators at all.

Greenaway has a painter’s eye, capturing perfectly staged tableaux with often absurd visual imagery and a good dose of nudity.

A Zed and Two Noughts is not currently available to stream in Australia.