[From TIFF '05 / Originally posted in the fest thread on 09/21/05]
Before his untimely death in 1996, the late, great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Three Color trilogy [1993-94]) was working on screenplays for another trilogy with his longtime screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Based on Dantes "The Divine Comedy," the three appropriately titled works -- "Heaven," "Hell" and "Purgatory" -- were meant to be directed by up-and-coming European filmmakers. German director Tom Tykwer took a stab at the first one in his English Language effort Heaven (2002), generating mixed results. But now, with L'Enfer (Hell), a riveting and deeply affecting drama which displays the sort of allegorical and psychological depth Kieslowski was known for, Bosnia and Herzegovinian Danis Tanovic, a Cannes and Academy award-winner for his debut feature No Mans Land (2001), has shown that he's up to the difficult task.
Tanovic has approached and delivered this material as an homage to Kieslowski, which is one way -- and it looks like the proper way -- to approach his writing. A Kieslowskian sequence early on in the film establishes the nature of the impending tragedy the three female protagonists, all sisters, are linked with. Then, by employing an episodic yet intricately linked structure, Tanovic fast forwards several years to firmly establish their estranged Parisian worlds.
Cline (Karin Viard) is one of them and is usually seen on the road visiting a mysterious-looking woman at an old folks home somewhere in the country. This demure individual curls inwards everytime someone tries to approach her. But she oddly gets interested in a handsome young man (Guillaume Canet) who she thinks is stalking her. Sophie (Emmanuelle Bart) is convinced that her husband (Jacques Gamblin) is cheating on her. But we feel an even deeper sense of desperation and loss through this unstable and troubled mother of two. Anne (Marie Gillain), the youngest of the three, is also having problems establishing a connection with the world around her. She is hopelessly in love with her history professor (Jacques Perrin), a much older man who is the father of her best friend.
While it sears with intensity throughout, LEnfer reaches a feverish high when Tanovic allegorically juxtaposes the proceedings with a reading of Euripides' "Medea" at a key moment in the film. But that's not his only bold move here. A nod towards traditional values in Kieslowski's films -- which pondered family dynamics, destiny and fate, chance and coincidence, a lack of ultimate faith, etc. -- is another, and one which may not get resolute approval from certain factions of the increasingly liberal audience.
Tanovic isnt Kieslowski, may never be, but some of his visual choices are astounding in their richness: from a downtrodden Bart mirthlessly watching a bee drowning in liquid to an overhead shot of Gillain running out to catch her lover and finding herself standing on a game of chance, Tanovic seems to be in full control.
Interwoven among the pathos and the drama are flashes of humor, not surprisingly from a filmmaker who made No Mans Land. One involves the great Jean Rochefort who makes a special appearance. And speaking of special appearance, the old woman featured in The Three Colors trilogy is back, but shes still having some trouble throwing a bottle in the recycling bin, a display Tanovic conjures up a perfect sequence for. His main cast is uniformly brilliant, especially Bart whos asked to quietly simmer in her ghost-like appearance. One of the her best scenes occurs in a hotel corridor where she incessantly whirls around in search of her husband; Tanovics use of mirrors (another Kieslowski trait) makes it that much more powerful. Strong musical choices (many performed by the director himself) also add much to the proceedings.
Kieslowskis cinema was filled with moments that asked questions, the kind open to be interpreted in different ways. Tanovic ultimately is able to find such instance in LEnfer. But whether the film has the moral and metaphysical depth to sustain and reward repeatedly, like most of the efforts from the master do, remains to be seen. Though it's likely that Kieslowski would've been satisfied with the results.
*L'ENFER had its World Premiere at TIFF '05. As far as I know, no U.S. distributor at this point.
*Now available on subtitled DVD in the U.K. (Momentum), as Trevor pointed out, and Hong Kong (Edko).