Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition. Blind Chance d. Krzysztof Kieslowski (1981) Spine: #772 Blu-ray Release Date: September 15, 2015 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.
In July, I was pleased to revisit Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1991 film The Double Life of Véronique for an episode of The CriterionCast (which you can listen to here). It’s a wonderful, strange film about two young girls who seem to share the same inner being — indeed, they seem to be the same person, just shaped by a different exterior world — though one was born in Poland and the other in France. It’s a film that looks at the various forces that act upon our life and shape our identity: choice, chance, fate, manipulation, etc. It’s a favorite, and I met with great excitement the news that The Criterion Collection would be releasing a film Kieslowski finished a decade earlier (though Polish censorship held the release of the film up until 1987), and one that seemed somewhat related to The Double Life of Véronique: Blind Chance.
Blind Chance was Kieslowski’s fourth fictional feature film (he was a documentarian as well), and from the supplements included in the new Criterion release I learned that it is a transitional piece; Kieslowski felt that trying to portray the external world — that of Poland in the 1970s — no longer served any point he could perceive, so he turned inward, interested in what builds our identity, looking at “the powers that meddle with our fate.”
The basic premise is this: a man named Witek is rushing to catch a train. In the first scenario, he catches it and we watch how the next phase of his life goes. We then shift back and watch him race after the train again, this time missing it, and his life goes, in many ways, in the opposite direction. Then he misses the train for a third time, and, due to some minor changes in behavior on the train platform, his life ends up going in yet another direction.
This idea is perhaps not new to us. Nor are films attempting to explore how seemingly minor events can affect our life: we’ve got Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run and Petwer Howitt’s Sliding Doors, both from 1998, as well as Eric Bress’s The Butterfly Effect from 2004. I don’t recommend any of those films. Yet there’s something in Blind Chance that I never saw in those three films. For one thing, Blind Chance not only examines how minor events can lead us to different lives but continues to explore how the people we meet and the history that rolls over us affect us. But I think the real reason I found more in Blind Chance is this: Kieslowski isn’t merely presenting this concept as a gimmick; he’s genuinely interested in the existential crisis we may have when we acknowledge that we are beholden to so many external forces that shape not just the events in our lives but our very identity.
Blind Chance takes place in Poland in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By this time, as alluded to above, Kieslowski was becoming less and less interested in exploring the brutal political climate of his home country, but he’s not completely done with them. While in The Double Life of Véronique the Polish doppelgänger walks by political rallies and even the removal of Stalin’s statue and is completely uninterested, Blind Chance looks at how one man, depending on chance, can end up at either end of the political spectrum or even completely outside of it (which is not to say unaffected by it).
In the first section, while on the train Witek meets an old Communist named Werner. Through their association, Witek eventually joins the Communist party. In the second section, Witek misses the train and is grabbed by one of the station workers on the platform. Upset, Witek pushes the man down and runs, only to be arrested and sentenced to community service. At community service Witek meets someone completely different from Werner: a young dissident. Thus, though chance meetings brought on by more chance, Witek becomes his own enemy, as well as a Catholic. In the third scenario, Witek doesn’t assault the platform worker and, because he is not running from officers, sees that an old acquaintance is on the platform. In this section, Witek become apolitcal, uninterested in joining either side.
Each scenario is believable. Partly this is because Boguslaw Linda, who plays Witek, is phenomenally grounded in each version of his character. Partly this is because the people he encounters and forms relationships with, including three different women, are compelling, solid characters on their own. We feel their relationships develop.
It’s a breath of fresh air to watch a film like this that does not lapse into pure gimmickry. It doesn’t just have someone who in one scenario catches an early train to discovery her husband’s duplicity and in another misses it and continues on in the relationship oblivious. That’s an exploration of dumb luck. Blind Chance goes much deeper. Sure, Witek ends up in entirely different relationships, but the focus remains on those relationships and how they shape Witek’s identity, which forces us to think not just about how chance affects what events we may or may not be a part of but about how completely different we could be, how completely different we are, from the person who got on that train platform a few years back.
- The first supplement is called “Blind Chance” Unshelved, an 18:12-minute interview with Polish film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski. Though as a whole the disc doesn’t have a lot of supplemental material, this particular interview goes a long way in making up for lost opportunities. Basically Sobolewski puts the film in context in Kieslowski’s career and in the political climate of the time, which led to the film’s censorship for most of the 1980s.
- The next supplement is a 5:24-minute interview with filmmaker Agnieszka Holland who talks about how Kieslowski developed the idea of this film. Apparently he had a rough version of it put together, showed it to her, and she thought it was terrible. As was his habit, Kieslowski took some time off and then reshot some material, finally putting this version together. Kieslowski also talks about this method in the short snippet of his included in the insert.
- Lastly, we get a 9:48-minute supplement that highlights nine sections of the film that were censored in Poland when the film was first released. This is basically the portions of film played straight through, with the uncensored segments in black and white with the censored bits in color. There is very little context to explain why any one portion was cut out, and I must admit to some moments of confusion where I had to sit and think, Now why did they censor those few seconds? I don’t know if there are any good answers, and I wish someone had come along to give a bit of commentary. Still, it’s a worthwhile supplement even if my own understanding was deficient. The film was censored, and we are fortunate to have it relatively uncensored here (one portion remained unsalvageable).
- The disc comes with an accordion style fold-out insert with an essay by film critic Dennis Lim, in which Lim discusses Kieslowski’s career and how this film served as a transitional piece, and a 1993 interview with Kieslowski himself, taken from the book Kieslowski on Kieslowski.