Life, the director Krzysztof Kieslowski once said, is like visiting a cafe: "We're sitting next to strangers. Everyone will get up, leave, and go their own way. And then, they'll never meet again. If they do, they won't realize that it's not for the first time."
Kieslowski, 54, who died Wednesday, concluded his career with four films that explored the mysteries of life and time. His characters met by chance. Their lives were changed forever by accidents, coincidences or synchronicities. Sometimes they met again, but mostly they did not. In "The Double Life of Veronique," he had the same actress play two roles, to suggest that one could as easily have been born one person as another.
There were those who believed Kieslowski was the greatest living director. Certainly he ranked with such modern masters as Scorsese, Kubrick and Kurosawa.
Born in Poland in 1941, he began by making films that were thinly veiled commentaries on Polish politics and society. Then he moved into the areas of morality and the meaning of life. His "Decalogue" (1988) consisted of 10 hourlong films, each a meditation on one of the Ten Commandments.
His breakthrough to a larger international audience came with "The Double Life of Veronique," which won the best actress award for Irene Jacob at Cannes in 1991. And then, as Poland was moving out from under communist rule, he made his famous "Three Colors" trilogy about liberty, equality and fraternity: "Blue" (1993), "White" (1994) and "Red" (1994).
"Blue" starred Juliette Binoche in the story of the young wife of a famous conductor. When her husband dies in an auto accident, she finds she has to re-evaluate everything she thought she knew about him, herself and marriage. She moves to an obscure district of Paris, tries to live anonymously and meets - by chance - her husband's mistress. The movie won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
"White," a dark comedy, follows a Pole in exile who supports himself by performing on Metro platforms in Paris. He finally persuades a friend to take him back to Poland - concealed in his luggage. Once there, he gets in on the ground floor of the post-communist business boom and tries to persuade his ex-wife (Julie Delpy) to rejoin him. The movie is filled with sly insights into the pragmatic ways many Poles adapted to the sudden change in their country's economic and political climate. The film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
"Red," the best of the three films, I think, starred Irene Jacob as a young woman who meets a retired jurist (Jean-Louis Trintignant) by chance, through his dog. The jurist eavesdrops on his neighbors, and Jacob is drawn into his life. They are separated in age by 40 years, but in the cosmic scale of the universe, they are, of course, almost the same age; the fact that they are alive at the same time is a much greater coincidence than that they meet each other.
A motif throughout the film is of criss-crossing telephone lines; Kieslowski plays with connections, and the lack of connections, between the woman and a law student who lives across the street from her. Perhaps she will meet him. Perhaps not. Perhaps she should have met him instead of the old judge. Perhaps the student and the judge could have been, with just the smallest adjustment of the laws of chance, each other.
At the end of "Red," the major characters in all three films find themselves onscreen at the same time. Like the visitors to the cafe, they do not, of course, recognize one another.
His final four feature films won Kieslowski acclaim and large audiences, although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to its shame, disqualified "Red" as a foreign film nominee last year because of uncertainty about whether it was "mostly French" or "mostly Swiss" (it was filmed in Geneva, with an international cast and crew). Surely Kieslowski's whole career mocked such distinctions. In amends, the director's branch of the academy nominated Kieslowski as best director for "Red," and he was nominated the same year for the film's screenplay.
During last year's Oscar season, in March, when he was a double nominee, Kieslowski announced he was retiring from filmmaking. At a gathering of independent filmmakers, I asked Julie Delpy why he would do such a thing, at his age, and at the height of his career. "Perhaps he is joking," she said. "He loves to joke."
But it now appears that the director, a heavy smoker, knew his health was failing. He had a serious heart attack in August, 1994, and underwent heart bypass surgery on Tuesday in Warsaw. His death Wednesday came from a heart attack.
In 1989, when his "Decalogue" was first being seen in New York, Kieslowski was asked by Village Voice writer Samir Hachem to name the 10 words he would keep if all other words were taken from him. He said, "Love. Hate. Loneliness. Fear. Coincidence. Pain. Anxiety. God. Responsibility." Told that he had named only nine, he added, "Innocence." Those 10 qualities represented the building-blocks of his cinema.