Vol 0, No 20
8 February 1999
K I N O E Y E:|
Better to Have Loved and Lost...
Jerzy Stuhr's Historie milosne
Andrew J Horton
If anyone now carries the mantle of Krzysztof Kieslowski, the Polish director who died in 1996, it is Jerzy Stuhr, his former student and collaborator. Stuhr's film Historie milosne (Love Stories, 1997) is dedicated to the great master's memory. Since this is the Valentine's issue of CER, Kinoeye takes a look at it.
Stuhr is a well-known figure on the Polish cultural scene, but not primarily as a film director. Stuhr's extensive CV revolves principally around an illustrious acting career. As well as being a favourite actor of Kieslowski's, he played for, among others, Andrzej Wajda, Agnieszka Holland and Krzysztof Zanussi. He has also worked in the theatre, both as an actor and director, with his most recent association being that with the Ludowy theatre in Krakow. Historie milosne is Stuhr's second film, his first being Spis cudzoloznic (The List of Adultresses, 1994).
Love or be damned
Historie milosne is composed of four interleaved stories with three things in common. Most obviously, they are all tales of love, although, less obviously, they are not all about the romantic variety. Secondly, Jerzy Stuhr plays the lead role in all four of the film's plots and lastly all the stories are united by a single building. Stuhr, though, doesn't immediately explain what this large and official-looking edifice is, why it should house so many varied functions, or why the characters should be subjected to questions about their relationships in one of its offices.
The film is not just about love in the abstract, though. Stuhr's stories are all about when love and the practicalities of everyday life become impossible to reconcile. A teacher finds out that one of his pupils is hopelessly infatuated with him; a priest learns that he is has a love-child who desperately needs his help, a colonel in the Polish army is torn between loyalty to his country and his passionate feelings for his Russian lover; and a convict finds he is unable to dampen the fiery feelings in his heart for the woman who put him in jail for seven years. Stuhr's message is simple: whatever the cost we may have to pay for it, we should love. If we cannot, we are damned.
Stuhr's hymn to the those who refuse to let reality get in the way of matters of the heart is an original and inventive moral tale. It is also a touching tribute to Kieslowski whose presence can be felt throughout the film. Perhaps, this is not surprising since Kieslowski helped Stuhr with the writing of the script. The feel of the film preserves Kieslowski's interest in moral dilemmas expressed through an effective mix of gritty realism, intense inner emotions with an occasional hint of the supernatural thrown in. Even the idea of using four stories is quite reminiscent of Kieslowski, who liked to lump his works into sets: the three colours, the ten commandments and his last project, which never got off the ground, a trilogy on paradise, purgatory and hell.
Although Stuhr compellingly uses Kieslowski's ideas, he cannot recreate Kieslowski's genius. The dilemma's of Historie milosne are very one-sided and Stuhr fails to gnaw at the problems from both ends like Kieslowski could and did. As a consequence, his prescription to us - to love regardless - seems rather shallow and one-dimensional, especially since the film takes the male perspective in all four stories, with the female characters not just being cliches, but anaemic cliches at that. Of course, one of the truly astonishing qualities of Kieslowski's films was the emotional intensity he managed to portray in his female characters. This obviously leads to the question of whether a director embarking on only his second film should try to take on such an acknowledged master with such a distinctive style. Stuhr might have been better to have dropped the touching tribute until later and made a film which had as little to do with his mentor as possible.
Beyond the Kieslowski question, there are still interesting issues raised within the film. The hollowness of the female parts puts a rather disturbing ring to the subtext of Historie milosne, although doubtless Stuhr did not intend it that way. The film ends up saying that it is not just acceptable but essential that frustrated middle-aged university lecturers should make a lunge at any vapid and dreamy student with a gorgeous body who should happen to fall for them, no matter how blatantly fruitless the relationship will be and regardless of if you have to break the law to fulfil the love. This is certainly an interesting proposition. I am sure that there will come a time, perhaps shortly, when it will be considered ill-advised to make films with messages like this, although I am in two minds as to whether this will be a good thing or a bad thing. After all, you have to like Stuhr for his insistent belief that the mundanities of life, such as responsibility and considering future consequences, do not just take second place to love, they are completely and utterly out of the race.
In the end, Stuhr's incurable romanticism is what saves the film and makes it worth watching. Whatever you may think about the relative merits of Stuhr and Kieslowski, you have to admit that Historie milosne is a sincere cinematic offering, and no amount of comparisons can overshadow that.
Andrew J Horton, 8 February 1999
Polish Film in the UK
Historie milosne was first shown in London at the Festival of Central European Culture in 1998 and has since been shown again at the Polish Cultural Institute in London and the Festival of Polish Films in Cambridge.
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