If you have ever held a pupa in your grip, you know that, if held up to a light, at a certain angle, the fully formed insect can be seen, even though it has yet to emerge. This was the sensation that I had while watching Polish director Krzystof Kieslowski’s 1981 film Blind Chance (Przypadek) after having seen his glorious Three Colors trilogy. It is a film that could have been great, had it been made a decade later in Kielsowski’s career, but made when it was it merely has tantalizing glimpses of his later greatness. However, it is, by no means, a bad film, and certainly quite a bit superior to two later films that owe it quite a bit of debt- Germany’s Run Lola Run, directed by Tom Tykwer, and Britain’s Sliding Doors- a Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle, directed by Peter Howitt, both from 1998.
The problems with the film have to do with some direct comparisons with the Three Colours trilogy. From an artistic viewpoint, the film is rather drab looking, even though filmed in color, and while one might ascribe this to the fact that the film, divided into four sections- a prologue and three alternate versions of a small, minor event, takes place in a relentlessly grim cosmos, this does have a subliminal effect of negating the optimistic premises that arise within the plot. This leads, however, into the second major flaw in the film- the fact that Kieslowski is relentlessly politically preachy in this film, with several of his characters going off on long political sermons and tirades well before we, the audience, have any idea who this character is or why he or she is so angry about something. Yes, this tale took place in a Communist dictatorship, but that’s not enough to excuse banal and propagandistic art- try enduring the pap art most Latin Americans proffer.
By the time Kieslowski made the Three Colours trilogy he learned that a film cannot exist merely for political critique. The critique has to be an organic part of the film, and while all three films in the trilogy have political messages, none are as blatantly propagandistic as this film’s heavy-handed message is. The third major flaw with the film is its pacing and construction. The film starts off with its enigmatic lead character screaming, and the camera following down his craw, then switches to a jumble of scenes from his boyhood which, only later, gel, and then not totally. Among them are scenes of his father drilling him in math, a parting with a childhood Jewish friend named Daniel, an encounter with a family friend, and he and his brunet teen girlfriend Czuszka being ridiculed by passersby in a bus as they walk down a roadside. Then, as a medical student, a blond female student named Olga, who has a crush on him, winces when she sees her former teacher, whom she hated, being used as a laboratory corpse, and cut open. Then, his father dies, and his enigmatic final message is that his son is ‘under no obligations.’ The film is a bit too frenetic and confused early on, even though this start does pay off in narrative twists later on in the film.
The first alternate life, which is the longest- each succeeding alternative is shorter than the last, is also far too quickly paced and jumbled to properly sort out in just one viewing, and the film may not offer enough afterwards to compel most viewers to rewatch. It really needed a more leisurely and natural introduction to themes and characters. By the end of the first hour, and into the second alternate life, things start to make more sense, as we see the lead character deal with similar ethical dilemmas in this life that he did with in the first life. Only then does the act of parallax start to make up for the narrative anomy of the first hour.
That lead character is a Polish medical student named Witek (Boguslaw Linda), who, in 1978- although we only find out the year in his ‘third life’, has just had his father die, wishes that he could change his life. He is running to catch a train to Warsaw, while taking some time off from medical school to sort out his life and, in this first part- after the prologue’s setup- including scenes of bloodied people in a hospital corridor, he catches the train. This leads to his becoming a Communist Party apparatchik, defusing a situation where band of hippy rebel students take over a college, and then reconnecting with Czuszka (Boguslawa Pawelec), who is a dissident. Eventually he betrays her, either formally or accidentally- it’s unclear, and ends up, three years after missing the train, wanting to take a plane trip to France with Party members, only to not make the flight, due to a snag in the group’s passports. This life ends with him frustratedly smashing a crystal vase a colleague of him has given him to the airport floor, which symbolizes his growing disillusionment with the party.
In the second life Witek just misses the train, runs into a policeman, and is arrested for assaulting the cop. As part of his community service he becomes involved with the underground movement that he betrayed in the first part, and even gets baptized and prays merely that God exists, for him ‘to be.’ In this version he meets Daniel (Jacek Sas-Uhrynowski) and his sister Werka (Marzena Trybala), who had fled to Denmark, back in 1968, and, even though Werka is six years older and married, they become lovers. But, somehow, the underground movement is foiled again, Witek is blamed for their demise, and he is an outcast in their midst. This section ends with him not taking the same flight to France, three years later, for he refuses to spy for the government- the only way they would have allowed him to leave the country. At this section’s end, we see his aunt, a devoted pre-War Communist who threatened to turn him in for his dissidence, listening to Radio Free Europe, which shows that there can still be hope for change, even if defeated, and although wary of the rebels, there is also a budding apathy in Witek.
In the third version, Witek again misses the train, but this time, instead of running into the cop, the cop walks harmlessly by and he sees that Olga (Monika Gozdzik) went to see him off at the train. They become lovers, she gets pregnant, they marry, and he becomes a successful doctor who is wholly apathetic politically- spurning both Communists and rebels. He eventually decides to aid his school’s Dean, who is spreading subversive literature, gets on the plane, and it explodes on takeoff, as the film ends. The effects of the plane exploding are especially bad, considering that, even in 1981 Poland, better work could have been done, and, post 9/11, no one can see this image and take it realistically. It’s about a step above the burning pie plates in the 1959 Ed Wood schlock sci fi film Plan 9 From Outer Space.
Overall, the film does a good job of dealing with the idea of randomness and, to a lesser extent, censorship, but, even a quarter century ago, these ideas and their presentation were a bit stale, so execution has to be the key to its success and, as said, that is where most of the film’s flaws lie. The acting by Linda is stellar, and the earlier, disjointed parts do come into a rearview focus as the film progresses, yet the psychology of the film does bear out a bit too much of Communist thinking, even as Kieslowski is critical of it, for Witek, despite the three different outcomes- as rising Communist Party apparatchik, as disaffected Christian rebel, and as satisfied apolitical doctor fated to die, is essentially the same person. It’s simply a position that is not tenable in what is known of human psychology and environmental factors today, and common sense dictated that truism even back then. But, even if that were not true in the real world, as an artifice it makes the character of Witek all the less challenging and unreal, despite Linda’s excellent portrayal.
In short, despite the film’s silly deterministic outlook, it is not that flawed philosophy that fails the film, but its imposition of false narrative arcs and character constraints that weakens the film. That said, because Witek is the only character that is parallaxed in the film- although several key minor characters make appearances in the airport in all three life versions, his is the only truly ‘realized’ character. The rest of the characters, especially Witek’s three alternate lovers, are more archetypal- with Czuszka being a quasi-Feminist budding dyke, Werka being the idealized and unwinnable grand love, and Olga being the classic fertile earth mother type. These romantic elements likely could have been dropped from the film with little damage to the overall tale, as well tightening the hour and fifty-four minute film’s pace. There is also a preoccupation that Kieslowski has with filming naked female genitalia (with hairy muff shots a specialty) while leaving Witek’s unseen. Bony Czuszka, especially, looks like she survived Dachau.
Much of the film’s plot also has a contrived feel that the Three Colors films do not have. Part of that has to do with the fact that Kieslowski wrote the whole film alone, whereas the Three Colours films were co-written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, proving that those films’ greatness are far more dependent upon Piesiewicz’s storytelling ability than is generally credited. Also, this film’s soundtrack, by Wojciech Kilar, is rather banal and pompous, especially compared with the superlative scores Zbigniew Preisner contributed to Blue, White, and Red; another indicator that Kieslowski was no one man genius upon whom all was dependent. Still, despite its flaws, the film did present enough of a dissonance from the Communist Party line so that Polish censors banned the film for six years, until it was finally publicly screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987.
The DVD version of the film is by Kino Video, which along with The Criterion Collection and Anchor Bay, is one of the top DVD companies for foreign films. The subtitles for this film are white, and readable, although an English dubbed soundtrack would have been a nice bonus. The biggest drawback is a lack of a film commentary. There are a number of extras, including a ten minute interview about the film with Kieslowski scholar Annette Insdorf, who did the lame commentaries for the Three Colors trilogy films. I guess, if she was the only person they could have gotten to do the commentaries, the film is better off for their lack, but surely some big name critic or scholar, other than Insdorf, could have been coaxed into the task. There’s also an interview with Polish film censor Irena Strazakowska, one with Polish filmmaker Agnieska Holland, a Kieslowski filmography, and trailers for Blind Chance and the five other films presented in Kino’s The Films Of Krzystof Kieslowski boxed set. The final feature is perhaps the most interesting- a twelve minute documentary film from 1968, directed not by Kieslowski, but by Marcel Lozinski, called Workshop Exercises. In it, people in Poland are asked what they think of young people. The visible fear on their faces, and in their voices’ canned replies, not knowing whether the filmmakers are apparatchiks out to set them up, is a wonderful document of the way totalitarianism works corrosively upon the human psyche, and the film is later subverted by audio and video editing tricks.
Critics who cite this film as an example of the butterfly effect are wrong, however, and simply do not understand the philosophical concept. The butterfly effect is about how a specific action can affect future events, not how a series of non-actions- which are what most of the main plot turns on and ultimately what this film is about, affect things. Blind Chance is the inversion of the butterfly effect, not its exemplar, for this film is not about a specific future, but a trio of possible futures. Blind Chance is not a great film, but it is a good one, and superior to its imitators, as well a herald for the future greatness Kieslowski had in him.
For example, the great image in Red, where Valentine and Joseph’s untenable love is symbolized by palms meeting across a car’s windowpane, is foreshadowed on several occasions in this film, at train stations. There is also abundant symbolism and unique metaphor within, such as a shot, in the first life, of a slinky going down a staircase, then dying, much like Communism was; or in the third life, where two jugglers toss balls back and forth between them, which shows how Witek, who tries and fails to juggle three apples- as well as lives, must ultimately choose just one, and be stuck with it. Such terrific metaphors are the coming butterflies of the Three Colours trilogy, and through their wings the colors light allows would permit Kieslowski his filmic legacy, one which Blind Chance’s failures lent inspiration to.