HEAVEN (2002)

Running Time:  97 mins.                      Rating: xx Stars/5 Stars

MPAA Rating: R

Director: Tom Tykwer

Genre: Crime/Drama/Romance

Country: Germany/Italy/USA/France/UK

Language: English and Italian w/English subtitles

Distributor: Miramax

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Remo Girone, Stefania Rocca, Alessandro Sperduti, Mattia Sbragia, Stefano Santospago


Some years ago, I can’t remember how many, the Film Society of Lincoln Center had a season of films celebrating the critical concept called the auteur theory. Simply stated this is the idea that a good film, or even a better film, is the result of the intellect of one person, the director and the stronger director is one who leaves his indelible stamp on the finished film. The timing was ironic because a month before the US courts had ruled that in fact it was the copyright holder that held all rights to a work of art. At the end of American motion pictures there had been for some time, the credit stating that for legal purposes, Twentieth Century Fox or Columbia Pictures or whomever, was to be regarded as the author of the photoplay, etc. So in fact, as far as the American Industry is concerned, there is no such thing as the Auteur Theory.

This theory, originally expressed by Frank Capra simply as “one film one man”, was further enhanced and codified by the post war French critics particularly those based at Cahiers du Cinema. They distinguished between the auteur and the mere métier-en-scene who was basically a traffic cop telling people where to go, what to do and what to say.

The Auteur theory reached its height in the 60s and 70s but the industrial realities of succeeding decades have pushed it aside. Every day I cringe as I watch Alec Baldwin in the Turner Classic promotion of the channel’s Essentials as he explains that it’s a collaborative medium and that a number of people are important elements in the final product.

I mention all this because the film HEAVEN is based on a posthumous script by the late Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski and his collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Kieslowski, I believe, was the last important filmmaker of the Twentieth Century. His work was unique in both its style and its message. His later work involved extended and tangential works grouped into related assemblages such as THE DECALOGUE, ten short films evoking the Ten Commandments, and the Colors trilogy, BLUE, WHITE and RED, the colors of the French flag and representing freedom. Before he died he was working on another trilogy representing the Heaven, Hell and Purgatory of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

If a script were like an architects plans, than in the hands of different builders the resulting buildings should be identical. If they had adhered to the plans. Likewise, once the script has been written, shouldn’t the final film be rendered the same, or essentially the same no matter whose hands directed it? Therefore the question is: Is HEAVEN a true Kieslowski film or a studio or follower piece directed by a lesser hand?

HEAVEN was not Tom Tykwer’s first time channeling Kieslowski. His “breakthrough” hit film, RUN LOLA RUN (1998), was a concept pioneered by Kieslowski in BLIND CHANCE (1981) (distributed internationally after 1987) and was also “borrowed” for SLIDING DOORS (1998). These films were dramatizations of the Garden of Forking Paths concept.

Whereas BLIND CHANCE shows that a minute incident might produce three very different destinies, it is expressed by showing a life compromised by collaboration, wherein the protagonist joins the party and acts like a cats paw for them; commits himself to underground resistance to the regime only to be betrayed; or follows the path of a career and comfort and non involvement. RUN LOLA RUN is more of a thriller, about crime, and guns, and action, and young hip movie people kind of in love. It owes more to Tarantino (for whose INGLORIOUS BASTERDS he wrote the German dialogue) than to Kieslowski. (I haven’t seen SLIDING DOORS but it seems to be a woman’s picture about relationships and babies).

In terms of milieu, HEAVEN seems more related to RUN LOLA RUN than the usual body of Kieslowski’s work. Of course in HEAVEN the action is very much more slowed down, giving the appearance of a more contemplative and therefore spiritual plain of action. Without seeing the script its difficult to see if the finished film is exactly as written, or an interpretation, but I feel that Kieslowski would have made the father into a more important character, perhaps even the fulcrum of the picture and the carrier of both the conscience and ideals circulating through the plot.

The plot is this. Phillipa (Kate Blanchette) is an English teacher in Turin whose boyfriend has died of an overdose supplied by a former friend who is now a drug lord. She determines to kill him by placing a bomb in his office. As fate would have it, the bomb instead kills four innocent people including two children. Arrested, she demands her right to be questioned in English and a young police stenographer, Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi), volunteers to translate. When Phillipa faints upon hearing she killed four people Filippo falls in love with her when holding her hand. He manages to drop a miniature tape recorder into her pocket after engineering a blackout in the office. On the tape he proposes to help her escape and requires her assent. Unknown to them the police have been listening and know of the plot. Indeed they have been working hand and glove with the drug lord all along. They pull off their escape, and with the help of Filippo’s younger brother, they send the police on a wild goose chase, while they hide in the building and lure the drug lord into the building, where Phillipa shoots him dead. They take trains to Montepulciano in southern Tuscany where Phillipa has a friend. The police trace them down there, surrounding and assaulting the house but they are hiding outside the house. There is an unattended helicopter with its motor running which they jump into and which the immediately begin to ascend in, higher and higher in the direction of Heaven.

The question is if this film was made directly from a Kieslowski script, was it the same movie that Kieslowski would have made? The first thing I noticed was the lack of a certain kind of ambiguity, a sort of aggressive ambiguity that Kieslowski used. There is one episode in the DECALOGUE that seems to illustrate this best. A middle-aged man is let into an apartment by a woman. They proceed to have a conversation. The audience is not told exactly what is their relationship. As the conversation continues one is forced to speculate, from the tone and subject matter, that perhaps they are married or divorced or lovers or ex-lovers before its revealed that they are father and daughter. All though the conversation as ones perception of their relationship changes the meaning of what they are saying, which also changes the meaning of what they have already said. And by extension one must re-evaluate the prejudices that caused one to think this way or that way.

Kieslowski forces the viewer to participate in watching the film. One must take something of oneself to a Kieslowski film and not merely sit passively allowing it to just unwind in front of them like a TRANSFORMER movie. There must be some intellectual engagement.

Tykwer’s film plays out pretty much on the level of an action film, a slow and deliberate action film, but one with no ambiguity. There is one moment that seems to involve the audience. We see Filippo stuffing a bundle like plastic bag in a toilet, obviously a preparation for the escape. Then the scene shifts to the interrogation room and Philippa starts talking about a plastic bag full of clothes stuffed into a toilet. What? Why is she talking about her escape preparations? Is she going to betray Filippo? She goes on and this turns out to be a reference to one of her addicted schoolchildren’s suicide. Now Tykwer seems to have used this little moment to, Hitchcock-like, play with the heads of his audience, but it is not a moment of Kieslowski-like ambiguity.

In fact the whole episode is curious. I speculate, but wouldn’t this reference to the plastic bag of clothes make more sense if it had been given BEFORE it was shown as part of the escape preparations. It calls into question how Filippo and Philippa were able to communicate their plans. Maybe Kieslowski’s script had them very cleverly communicate during the interrogation, she telling stories, he making deliberate mistranslations. At one point, after the escape, she says to him, “You changed the plans”. What plans? How did they make them? If you conspire, you do have to communicate.

Perhaps seeing Philippa conveying ideas for escape might have made her seem devious. In a Kieslowski film, guilt is not taken lightly and not merely mentioned in passing. Twice Philippa mentions that she is guilty of taking innocent life and that she deserves to be punished and is willing to take her punishment. The second time she says this, after escaping, she is ready to accept her punishment, but only after killing the drug lord. In the Hollywood tradition, killing the dog-kicking villain is without moral consequence. Not in Kieslowski’s world, however. Yet here, even though the bloody deed is done off camera, it is handled more like Tarantino than Kieslowski. It is mise-en-scene and not a moral and ethical challenge.

After she achieves her goal, her revenge, the murder of the drug lord, she doesn’t turn herself in to accept the punishment she agrees she deserves, but instead they go on the run and the film resembles a doomed young lovers on the run picture (THEY LIVE BY NIGHT; YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE; etc.) Except this escape is done in a deliberate, wordless, slo-mo manner, thus stylistically resembling a Kieslowski film, but not in substance Kieslowski like.

They are off to visit her friend in Montepulcano, in southern Tuscany. A known friend of hers has a farmhouse there. They shave each other’s heads; wear the same clothes, white tee shirts and black skinny jeans. It has far more in common with a disaffected youth romp than super serious Kieslowski. HEAVEN uses a clone of Zbigniew Presner’s music. Three notes on the high end of a piano played one at a time. But the visuals would be better served by a Donovan song. All that is missing is sun flashed shots.

The Tuscan farmhouse is surrounded by paramilitary police complete with a helicopter, but the lovers are out walking in the country. They suddenly appear hiding behind a wall and they sprint to the unattended but running helicopter. With the helicopter they ascend higher and higher, upward to heaven. Thus the title.

Kieslowski was pretty ambiguous when designating just which commandment was being identified by which film in his DECALOGUE, but how this film fits into Dante’s conception of Paradise is beyond me. If people had the dream like ability to effect revenge successfully and to walk out of prison and to wind up in a hilltop farm in Tuscany and this was like heaven, that’s one thing, but considering its being effected by murder, mayhem and manslaughter it doesn’t seem very heaven like. It sounds like egoism. Something Kieslowski, if not actually having a critical attitude to, would have at least noted.

I don’t think Kieslowski started out to make a two crazy kids in love movie when he wrote this script. I think the whole film has been shifted, like the borders of Poland itself, this time westward. I think the missing section, of the interrogations, was more of the center of the film. Their communicating surreptitiously would have been more revealing then their looking conspicuously cool.

The father, who was the ex-head of the Carabinieri and appears in his full uniform, has a scene with his son early in the picture. He reappears at the end to beg his son to return and he would smuggle Philippa out of Italy himself but they’re in love and he gives them money. That is his entire role in the film though it’s impossible to see how he wouldn’t be woven into the plot, which takes place mostly within the Commissariat of Police.

As for the ending, it is pure “deus ex machina”, or maybe, on a physical level, deus ex machina in reverse. In Greek theatre some plays would be resolved by the gods being lowered by a crane onto the stage. In HEAVEN they resolve the problems of the situation by taking off in a conveniently placed helicopter.

But the question here is, is HEAVEN a work of the director or the screenwriters? Is it merely a situation similar to people playing the same hand differently in a duplicate bridge tournament, or can the finished work be classified more securely in the oeuvre of one artist or another. I think, especially considering Tykwer’s subsequent work, that HEAVEN is his film, with little left of Kieslowski’s work than the shell. The Tykwer universe consists of criminals, assassins, the world’s greatest nose, etc. Kieslowski’s world is primarily ordinary people, none with very much glamour going for them. Maybe it’s a big deal when they are appointed factory manager or win an amateur film competition but they live circumscribed and ordinary lives. Tykwer’s world is far jazzier, and less introspective. For those jonesing their Kieslowski fix, this isn’t even methadone. Give up all hope.


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