Issue 177 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review



Profane illuminations

Three Colours Trilogy
Dir: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Julie Delphy in White--mourns a husband who is not dead
Julie Delphy in White--mourns a husband who is not dead

European cinema has been a dull affair these past few years. The survivors of the New Wave which made European film making so exciting in the 1960s have fallen silent, or are producing work way below their best. Once sparkling talents have dimmed, like the Marxist-turned-Buddhist Bernardo Bertolucci. They have had no real successors.

Or so it seemed, until the films of the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski began reaching the West in the late 1980s. They revealed a film maker of the first order, with a highly distinctive and very personal vision of the world.

One way of summing this up is to borrow a remark of the great Marxist critic Walter Benjamin. He said that the Surrealists in Paris between the wars offered 'profane illuminations'. Their art would take the most banal everyday objects and use them to explore a secret and subversive world of desire.

Kieslowski's films are full of profane illuminations. Our view of the ordinary world is transfigured by adopting a new perspective (a fatal car journey is filmed from the angle of one of the back wheels) or by the use of light (a ray of sunshine breaking through the clouds transforms a previously dark and dingy room).

Yet while the more radical Surrealists used their illuminations to show the way in which our desires are confined and repressed by an unjust society, Kieslowski's revelations lead us away from politics into the personal life. This is very clear in Three Colours, the trilogy of films he has just completed, which is devoted to exploring the three great slogans of the great French Revolution--liberty, equality and fraternity. But in each case a political idea is reinterpreted in personal terms.

Thus in Blue, the first and weakest of the three, Julie (Juliette Binoche) reacts to the death of her husband and daughter in a car accident by trying to wipe out the past, and cuts herself off from all human contact. She discovers, however, that the freedom she is seeking in this way is an illusion.

Similarly, equality in White, recently released in Britain, turns out too to concern love. The theme seems to be, as the French saying has it, there is always one who is kissed and one who kisses. The partners to a relationship are never equal: one partner is always more dependent on the relationship than the other.

So White starts with Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a Polish hairdresser living in Paris, being divorced by his beautiful French wife Dominique (Julie Delphy) because he has been impotent ever since they married. He is the dependent one, emotionally and financially. By the end, the roles have been reversed.

In fact the film concentrates on the comic tale of how Karol, destitute and divorced, through a series of adventures and mishaps manages to return to Poland, and to make his fortune. Along the way Kieslowski offers a pitiless portrait of Poland since the fall of Stalinism, a country ruled by Mafia style capitalism, in which we are told several times, 'You can buy anything' (including a corpse, though that has to be imported from Russia).

Karol's money making is, however, all for love's sake. He uses his wealth to fake his own death, and thereby to lure Dominique to Poland. It is only now that he can consummate their marriage. He says it's because he saw her cry at his funeral. I wonder. Maybe money was his problem all along.

All this highlights one difficulty with Kieslowski. The ideas he explores are often, to be frank, banal. But the means he uses to express them can be extraordinary. The bottom line of Blue is really nothing more than that everyone needs love, but the final sequence of the film, which seeks to express this by a series of shots of the main characters through a distorting lens and using a blue filter, is remarkable.

The same problem recurs in Red, due to be released in Britain in the autumn. The idea of fraternity is explored through the relationship between a young model Valentine (Irene Jacob) and an embittered retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

The basic story has been told often enough by Hollywood, and could be summed up as Beautiful Young Thing breathes new life into Grumpy Old Codger. But the central scenes between them are so well done, with first rate performances by both the principals--and especially by Trintignant--that Kieslowski sweeps the audience along with him.

It's hard not to see the contradiction between the paucity of ideas and the formal brilliance in Kieslowski's films as a reflection of the experience of Polish intellectuals of his generation. Politically involved in the early 1980s when Solidarnosc was a mass workers' movement confronting the state, he seems to have become increasingly disillusioned as the decade wore on.

His resulting retreat into the personal (which is now so extreme that he says he will make no more films) is therefore part of a collective tragedy which has denied this most gifted artist access to ideas that could really stimulate and challenge his work.
Alex Callinicos

A fairy tale of courage

We Don't Want to Talk About it (De Eso no se Habla)
Dir: Maria Luisa Bemberg

Once upon a time in a small town lived a widow whose only child, a daughter, was born a dwarf. Fearing ridicule she kept everyone in silence about her daughter's size, who as a result grew to be confident and talented and eventually married a rich man, and they all lived happily ever after... until a circus came to town.

This film with its fairy tale like story is a moving tale of love, devotion, courage and destiny. The narrator invites us to consider that events could have taken a different turn, that the final outcome was by no means inevitable.

It takes place some 50 years ago in a make believe town. The widow, Leonor, is a powerful and manipulative figure whose influence is considerable and through this she maintains the silence of the town about her daughter's status as a dwarf--doing it so successfully that it is almost as if Charlotte herself is unaware of her own differentness. She is cheerful and strong willed. Encouraged by her mother, she studies and learns to play the piano, performing undaunted for the town's local dignitaries.

They are befriended by D'Andrea, a mysterious but wealthy bachelor played by Marcello Mastroianni, who soon falls hopelessly and passionately in love with Charlotte.

That D'Andrea falls in love with the engaging Charlotte is not entirely convincing. This man has haunted drinking parlours and brothels, in his own words known many 'chicas'--girls--but never a real woman. There is a moment when it is not clear whether his tormented reaction is not one of pity for her.

Initially he flees from this impossible situation returning after some time to beg Charlotte's hand in marriage.

Their lives settle and their happiness is secure until one fine day Leonor spots an approaching circus. She pleads with D'Andrea as the newly appointed mayor to refuse permission. For once her manipulation does not succeed though she does manage to convince D'Andrea to forbid Charlotte from attending. What does she fear--that Charlotte will be finally confronted with her differentness?

Charlotte resents this and sneaks out at dawn and prowls the site as tents are dismantled. She is received warmly and is finally seen leaving with the circus, astride her white horse.

It is ironic that the two people in Charlotte's life who have endowed her with so much love and devotion have in doing so inspired in her the curiosity and courage to leave them.

Having invested so much in Charlotte, her two devotees are left spiritually destitute. Leonor shuts herself away from the world forever and D'Andrea disappears, his whereabouts unknown, but it is rumoured he has been seen lurking around a circus in a faraway European city.

This film is the latest from Maria Luisa Bemberg, Argentina's first successful woman director, who entered professional cinema determined to challenge the traditional stereotypes of women in film and has written and directed a number of screenplays and feature films over the past 20 years.

In a continent where so many people are marginalised by poverty, in particular in the tragic lives of street children in the capital cities, who as a result fail to reach their full size or potential, it is possible to read this as an allegory of that situation.

But it is a personal tale of individual courage with a strong and powerful message--that if those who are different are accepted then there need be no obstacle to their growth and development.

For this it should be applauded. It is also beautifully shot, a slow moving film but poignant, at many moments both happy and sad. This film has been a box office hit in Argentina and deserves to be so over here.
Anne Cooper

On release from 12 August

Tales from the city

Dir: Patrick Keiller

The broken communities of London
The broken communities of London

The never seen narrator of this film and his awkward ex-lover, Robinson, plan three pilgrimages to London's romantic past, only to discover the present butting in. The modern city soon becomes the film's real content, and its examination involves an amusing assault on the Tory government and royal family which is all the more biting for being delivered in precise, deadpan prose.

Returning to London after seven years at sea, the narrator is surprised how Londoners accept the city's curious routines--its bombs, its beggars, its inequality--with such a matter of fact, unquestioning shrug.

His camera works to defamiliarise the city. It dwells on commonplace things until they seem strangely alien. The use of shot and sound reverse expectations: a polluted river becomes beautiful; the celebration of an election victory an eerie dumbshow.

The film's juxtaposition of images again undermines received wisdoms. The husk of a City building bombed by the IRA is filmed, the wind blowing its blinds in delicate patterns. The film then shows the rubble of a building being knocked down, described as the 'wreckage' of Tory policy.

The narrator is indignant that a tunnel under the Thames between MI5 and MI6 buildings will cost f250 million. While he notes its absurdity we see a sign for a Magritte exhibition and then a green hedge hatted by the Canary Wharf building, a frame which, on reflection, is designed like that painter's work.

As well as this attack on the government there is a second and deeper theme. Robinson's (interrupted) research into the past is motivated by a desire for community--an asset broken up with each bend of the capitalist economy. By a number of funny montages we realise that this past cannot be retrieved.

What hope there is for the city clearly only begins when the Tories are dispatched, and the 1992 miners' marches are welcomed. However, walking at the back of the march the pair only arrive in an empty Hyde Park hours after the rally has finished: a sign both of its great size, but also a symbol for its feared absence. The film draws no conclusions here.

This is an ingenious and sensitive piece of work: highly recommended.
Bryan Smith


Crushed hopes

Sweet Bird of Youth
by Tennessee Williams

Sweet Bird of Youth: hemmed in by small town bigotry
Sweet Bird of Youth: hemmed in by small town bigotry

In much modern drama it has become fashionable to drop themes of class struggle, oppression and resistance. This has led to a very shallow approach where the characters are often stereotypical and the emotions bland and unconvincing.

Sweet Bird of Youth takes the opposite view. It is a compelling drama which deals with all the manifestations of power from politics and religion to cynical emotional manipulation. It shows how power crushes human relations--love, friendship, trust--leaving the characters disoriented and afraid.

The play tells the story of Chance Wayne, his travelling companion Alexandra del Lago, his childhood sweetheart Heavenly Finley, and her father Boss Finley.

Chance is a schemer, trying to win the fame or fortune he thinks will get Heavenly back. Alexandra is a Hollywood star fleeing the first night of her latest film.

The play starts with Chance returning to his home town of St Cloud trying to win back Heavenly. But the people of St Cloud, a Southern US town rich in prejudice and reaction, don't want Chance back with his shady past and free spirit.

Across town Boss Finley is enraged to find out that Chance has returned. He is in the midst of a political campaign and his daughter's relationship with a degenerate like Chance is unacceptable. He arranges for his son and his hired thugs to get Chance and Alexandra out of town.

Boss Finley is revealed bit by bit in all his capitalist horror. He splits up Heavenly and Chance wrecking both their lives in the process. He is vilely racist, talking of the purity of white youth and not criticising the castration of a black man by racist thugs.

In the next scene Chance faces his own friends in the cocktail lounge. Their rejection of his independence and their bigotry are mirrored by his degeneration.

He may have escaped the stifling atmosphere of St Cloud only to be crushed by false hopes of wealth and stardom. Then Alexandra appears in a worse state--panicked and drugged, staggering and collapsing.

Both societies stand condemned. Chance has been crushed by each in turn. Finally, Heavenly appears in white like the Virgin Mary. Chance is thunderstruck, and realises his actions brought about Heavenly's destruction. This is the turning point of the play. Heavenly has accepted defeat, Chance accepts his fate.

Alexandra finds out that the film has been a big success and leaves, but Chance refuses to go with her.

There are glimmers of hope, above all in the relationship between Chance and Alexandra. He keeps helping her in her panics, and she discovers through helping him that she has not lost all her humanity. And they all resist: Heavenly won't pretend to be happy for her father, Chance won't leave town and Alexandra keeps going.

The set brilliantly highlights the mood and conflicts of the play. The director has adapted the play to maximise the tension. The sets are all hemmed in from the back: the blinds of the bedroom that go up for ever, the wall of Boss Finley's terrace. The stage curtains are used like film shutters to confine the action.

In one scene the stage is fragmented, everyone looking in different directions, under different lighting.

In spite of the brilliant way this play exposes how power destroys people and shows resistance to it, there is still something missing. The castration case is used as background, but the black characters have little to say. The claustrophobic atmosphere shuts out the mass forces capable of doing more than simply comforting each other.
John Tate

Sweet Bird of Youth plays at the National Theatre London until September

Another moral panic

Measure for Measure
by William Shakespeare

Vienna is in crisis and decay. The Duke abdicates responsibility to his deputy Angelo, an authoritarian moralist who seeks to create a moral panic to deflect attention from the crisis. But he himself becomes a victim of his own morality.

Sounds familiar? Think of Lilley's attack on single parents, Howard's repressive Criminal Justice Bill and Major's 'back to basics'. And then remember Mellor's lust, Milligan's orange and Yeo's children.

It is uncanny how the play mirrors the Tories own hypocritical moral panic. This production by Cheek by Jowl successfully embraces these contemporary parallels by setting the play in modern dress.

Vienna is a world where sex is a commodity. Two young lovers, Claudio and Juliet, are chastised by the authorities for having sex and Claudio put under sentence of execution for making Juliet pregnant.

Through this harsh puritan repression all notions of sexuality are distorted.

Not only do the young innocents suffer but so do the most exploited of all, the prostitutes and low life who are the very people Angelo wishes to sweep off the streets.

In Jacobean England there was a moral crackdown against the low life. At the time of the abortive Essex rebellion the authorities feared that a 'great multitude of base and loose people' who 'lie privily in corners and bad houses, listening after news and stirs [prostitutes], and spreading rumours and tales, being of likelihood ready to lay hold of any occasion to enter into any tumult or disorder.'

The rulers wanted to suppress sexuality as part of their desire to achieve a disciplined society. Some puritan extremists advocated the death penalty for prostitution. Theatres were closed because many theatre owners were also brothel keepers.

Shakespeare was probably appalled at the crackdown. But his position was as contradictory as the Duke's. After abdicating his responsibility to Angelo, the Duke goes into disguise to walk amongst his people and to discover the effects of the repressive state, subjecting both state and people to a moral test.

Central to this moral testing is Isabella, a nun and sister to the condemned Claudio. She is put under severe pressure by Angelo, who offers Claudio's life for her chastity. By the end of the play she is the only one to pass the distorted logic of the Duke's test. Her unpalatable prize is marriage to the Duke.

But back in power the Duke doesn't undo any of Angelo's repressive laws. The unsatisfactory end to the play indicates that Shakespeare, like the Duke, believed in the notion that there can be a more benign repression. It is his way of warning the feudal class not to be undermined by rampant puritanism.

This production clearly points the finger at the Tories' hypocrisy. But not all the parallels work--especially Isabella dressed in a nun's habit turning moral somersaults.

Nevertheless this production is accessible, interesting and you can sense the few Tories in the audience squirming as we indulge in their misfortune.
Patrick Connellan

Measure for Measure plays at the Hammersmith Lyric in London until 16 July

Cut throat capitalism

Rutherford and Son
by Githa Sowerby

This play was written in 1912, midway through the Great Unrest--the longest and one of the most militant periods of working class struggle in British history. Long and bitter disputes swept through the coal mines, the railways and the docks, with striking dock workers in London in running gun battles with scab labour.

Rutherford and Son gives a feel for how this social upheaval affected personal lives. The play is set in John Rutherford's living room. He is the owner of the local glass factory, the main employer in this corner of the north east, and his presence, and behind him the presence of his factory churning out the profits he pockets, broods over every scene.

Rutherford subordinates everything to the pursuit of profit, including family ties, friendship and any sense of morality--he is the archetypal boss. His family engage in a constant battle against him. One son joins the clergy but this effort to make a principled stand is immediately compromised when his father secures his first job for him. Another tries to get rich quick through his inventions but is defeated by his father's cut throat methods. His daughter tries to escape through love and ends up heart broken.

It's melodramatic stuff but entertaining nonetheless. Writer Githa Sowerby was the daughter of a glass manufacturer in Gateshead and it's highly likely that the play is influenced by her own unhappy past. It wasn't until 1912, after she had moved to London, that she felt confident enough to reflect critically on the capitalist principle of enrichment at all costs that had dominated her earlier life. By this time the working class was on the rampage, the Suffragette movement was in full swing and Githa had joined the Fabian Society. The heightened level of class struggle enabled her to generalise from her own experience to produce a play which gives a tangible feel for how the pursuit of profit affects every aspect of life.

But when it was first performed in 1912 the play received almost unanimous critical acclaim, despite the awful picture it paints of the boss class. Why? Because it is a play without hope, a play that encourages you to feel sad, maybe even angry at the way John Rutherford abuses people, but ultimately a play that says nothing can be done, struggle is useless. This must have been pretty reassuring to the middle class audiences of the time.

So, instead of a play of hope and excitement at the possibilities raised by working people trying to change the world, we get one full of fear and despair, a partial view of the world, its possibilities and its people--melodrama, not drama.

Lee Humber

Rutherford and Son plays at the National Theatre London until September

Broken promise

by Janek Alexander, Paul Davies and Fern Smith

In a period where theatre rarely has an overtly political nature, the staging of a play based on Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto promised a breath of fresh air. However, the Volcano theatre company's Manifesto fails in its attempt to convey the message of the original work.

The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, was an indictment of the developing capitalist system and a rousing call to action to workers to overthrow the old political order and replace it with a better one.

Manifesto opens promisingly with its illustrations of the brutality of class society and exploitative nature of capitalism. This is put across through a series of innovative dance pieces, which are the strength of this production.

But when it moves on to its portrayal of the Russian Revolution and post-revolutionary society it politically loses its way very quickly. Through selections of the work of the poet Mayakovsky and Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon, the play ends up with Stalin's prison cells with a sense of inevitable logic.

If you've never read any Marx or Engels you're unlikely to be inspired to do so by Manifesto. Its muddled politics make parts of the play obscure and difficult to follow.

But don't let this production put you off reading the original pamphlet--it's both clear and inspiring.
Rob Morgan

Plays at the Battersea Arts Centre till 4 July. Check for tour dates in the summer


It's not all union jacks

This year's series of Promenade Concerts takes place every day from 15 July to 10 September. The Proms are an off putting experience for many people, with all the pomposity of the Albert Hall and the mindless middle class braying, 'Land of Hope and Glory'. Most of the boxes and 600 seats in the stalls are privately owned.

Yet the concerts are not the bastion of conservatism they once were. And they represent the cheapest way imaginable to hear some great music: every concert is broadcast live by the BBC on Radio 3.

This year's programme includes all Beethoven's symphonies; Mozart's two most spectacular and revolutionary works; some of the key pieces of 20th century music by Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Stravinsky; Hindemith's symphony Mathis der Maler (premiered just eight months before his music was banned by the Nazis); and Shostakovich's 4th Symphony, suppressed because of Stalin's disapproval.

Other less well known music includes James Macmillan's work The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, commemorating one of the 4,500 Scots accused of witchcraft between 1560 and 1707 (she was tortured and judicially murdered in 1662).

Alexander Goehr's new piece, Colossos, is inspired by one of Goya's most dramatic paintings. And there is a revival of The Wreckers, an opera set in a Cornish fishing village, first performed in 1906. The composer, Ethel Smyth, was jailed for her part in the fight for votes for women.

Anyone with access to a decent radio and cassette recorder can build themselves a marvellous library of music.

This month also sees the 1994 WOMAD festival at the Rivermead Centre in Reading. It includes two outstanding attractions.

Gil Scott Heron, described as the 'acknowledged godfather of rap', has personified all the anger and militancy (and also the humour) of black America for years--most famously in 'The Revolution will not be Televised'.

Boukman Eksperyans produce Haiti's greatest dance music. Banned in their own country, they are rightly described in the programme as 'the living embodiment of the revolutionary spirit of Haiti'.
Both are due to appear on the last day of the festival (24 July). Details from 0734 591591. Boukman Eksperyans also appear on 25 July at The Garage, near Highbury Corner, London.
Dave Beecham

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