Phil on Film Index

Monday, April 24, 2006

Review - Hell (L'Enfer)

How do you follow a man like Krzysztof Kieslowski? The great Polish filmmaker, whose Dekalog and Three Colours trilogy beguiled filmgoers the world over, died in 1996, but his legacy is still being felt ten years on. Shortly before his untimely passing Kieslowski, along with regular writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz, had begun work on a new trilogy, entitled Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, and now a new generation of filmmakers are bringing his work to the screen.

In 2002 German director Tom Tykwer directed Heaven, which turned out to be a massive disappointment. The film, starring Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi, was a dull and faintly preposterous tale which lacked any of Kieslowski’s trademark style or grace. An unhappy Miramax dropped their option on the triptych, and for a while it looked like Kieslowski’s unfinished work would remain just that. Now, with Bosnian filmmaker Danis Tanovic on board, the second instalment is finally with us. The film is Hell (L‘Enfer), and the first piece of good news to report is that it’s a much better film than Heaven.

Hell takes the old ‘three sisters’ structure as its starting point. The sisters here are Sophie, Céline and Anne, and they are played respectively by Emmanuelle Béart, Karin Viard and Marie Gillain (when your mother is played by Carole Bouquet I suppose that kind of beauty is just in the genes). Each of the women are embroiled in some sort of man trouble. Elder sister Sophie has become obsessed with the idea that her husband, a successful photographer, has been having an affair with one of his models. She has begun stalking around the hotels where she believes he is having his trysts and is becoming progressively more unstable. Anne, the youngest of the three, is struggling to cope with the fact that the teacher she was having an affair with has broken things off; and she has grown into something of a stalker herself, as she strives to win him back.

Which leaves Céline, a timid, repressed woman who is the only sister to keep in regular contact with their infirm mother. Céline takes long train journeys to sit with the mute, wheelchair-bound woman, and her life appears to be a lonely one. That is, until Sebastian (Guillaume Canet) appears on the scene. While her two sisters are stalking their men, Céline finds herself being stalked by this handsome stranger. She initially assumes he has some romantic interest in her but it soon becomes clear that he holds a secret which goes right to the heart of the family’s past, a secret which will reunite the three sisters for the first time in years.

Intrigued? You probably will be. Hell occasionally has the whiff of cliché and melodrama about it but the screenplay, which has been extensively reworked by Piesiewicz, reveals its secrets reluctantly, with the various revelations carefully timed to make maximum impact. Hell is precisely structured, making judicious use of flashbacks which take on new meaning as we learn more about the sisters’ past, and it has little trouble maintaining our interest as it slowly draws the threads together. Thematically, the film explores some of Kieslowski’s pet notions such as fate versus destiny, and the impact of the past on present events, but it handles them in a rather talky, straightforward style; and this is what hampers the film’s chances of living up to its creator’s high standards.

Kieslowski’s screenplays were little more than a template for the finished film. You didn’t come away from a Krzysztof Kieslowski picture with memorable dialogue rattling around your brain, or marvelling at the intricacies of the plot. Instead, a Kieslowski film left the viewer with a head full of stunning images, it left the viewer rhapsodising about the director’s incredible control of tone, his superb handling of the film’s conflicting emotions. There was a tangible sense of mystery about Kieslowski’s work, he was a director who preferred to suggest rather than explain, who was happy to leave tantalising gaps for the audience to fill, and quite often the film’s brilliance was dictated by what wasn’t there.

This is why Tanovic’s talk-heavy and didactic handling of Hell is frustrating. The film’s themes are laid out in long snatches of dialogue which reference Euripides' Medea, but the film feels burdened by all this discussion, when Kieslowski would have surely elected to show rather than tell. The film’s plotting also seems a little too schematic and mechanical at times; and while Kieslowski’s narratives were occasionally contrived, he never allowed the workings to show through. It may be a futile thought, but Kieslowski fans will find it hard to enjoy Hell without wondering throughout what the great man himself would have made of this material.

Hell’s cast is ridiculously classy, with actors like Jean Rochefort even popping up for brief cameos, and the three leading ladies all give first-rate displays. Béart is affecting and compelling as Sophie, her grief at her husband’s infidelity exploding in an almost feral manner, and Gillain gives a fine performance as Anne, although her role is the most underdeveloped of the three. But it’s the ever-excellent Karin Viard who stands out with a tremendous performance as Céline. She is brilliantly understated, displaying big emotions with the slightest alterations in her expression, and her sensitive work gains the bulk of the viewers’ sympathy for this downtrodden, insecure character.

The actors are Hell’s strongest suit, but there were numerous other things I liked about the film. It's an incredibly slick production, artfully shot, and it benefits from an atmospheric score. Tanovic shows some flair in his direction - I particularly liked the way he allowed his camera to hover over the action, perhaps suggesting an all-seeing force controlling events - and he shows an acute ability to find a bleak humour in many of the film’s darkest situations; which is unsurprising after his Oscar-winning No Man’s Land. Kieslowski devotees will also delight in spotting the numerous visual homages to his films which Tanovic sprinkles liberally across the picture.

Hell is ultimately a solid, extremely watchable picture, which is at the very least a vast improvement on Heaven. However, it never comes close to achieving the level of quality we have come to expect from Krzysztof Kieslowski. How could it possibly do so? You can take a Kieslowski story, add the finest actors and a talented director, and yet something irreplaceable is still missing - Kieslowski himself. Few filmmakers, living or dead, could direct a film like he could. His passing left an enormous void in the cinematic landscape which Heaven and Hell have been unable to fill. Krzysztof Kieslowski was one of cinema’s great figures, and it is understandable that modern filmmakers would long to tell his unfinished stories; but until we see Purgatory, this final testament to an extraordinary filmmaker will remain in limbo.