Armchair Cinephile

"I'll show you the life of the mind."

Miller's Crossing (Fox Home Entertainment)
Barton Fink (Fox Home Entertainment)
Three Colors Trilogy: Blue, White, Red (Miramax)

Fans of the Coen Brothers (that's all of us, right?) will be happy to see that Barton Fink and Miller's Crossing make an even 100 percent - now all of their

features are available in shiny-disced wide-screen glory. The former is way more than welcome, but the latter is like a gift from the God of Movies (who is not Charlton Heston, by the way).

Miller's Crossing is by far the least ironic film the Brothers have made to date, the one to which the adjective "quirky" applies the least. The movie's bits of affectation - it delights in its own obscure lingo ("What's the rumpus?"), for instance - are easy to see but don't have the smirking quality they take on in, say, The Hudsucker Proxy. This sacrifices some of the filmmakers' characteristic humor, but as a result the story's moral themes are weightier and more resonant.

Set among Irish gangsters in an unnamed Prohibition-era city, it is basically a love triangle - but while on the surface it dramatizes one woman's choice between two men, it is really about how one man (Gabriel Byrne) reconciles his devotion to a boss (Albert Finney) who happens to be smitten with the woman (the delectably egocentric Marcia Gay Harden) Byrne is covertly canoodling. Byrne's love for his boss matches the way he conducts his public life: He "sees all the angles" in a way other characters don't, and he acts accordingly even when all around him think he's mad. He gets into ugly, Philip Marlowe-type fixes thanks to his ideals, and the plot's twists have a similar Chandlerish quality; but unlike some of those tales, Miller's Crossing makes more sense on repeat viewing. It's also more enjoyable and more moving the second, or sixth, time around. You might get laughed out of the hipster club for claiming that it's the best Coen Brothers movie so far - but you would have a leg to stand on.

Saying that Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski hit his peak with his Three Colors (Bleu, Blanc, and Rouge) trilogy, on the other hand, is hardly controversial. Although it is not as epic in philosophical scope as his Decalogue, a 10-part series inspired by the Ten Commandments, the trilogy's more generous budget allowed the director to realize his vision in a lush, extravagant way. Where the ability to create prettier pictures might have provoked

self-indulgence in some austerity-trained filmmakers (Kieslowski learned his craft in a state-run Communist school), Kieslowski instead used beauty in a refined way that demonstrates his complete mastery of cinematic language.

Each of the films, which were shot in French, revolves around one of the ideals represented by France's tricolor flag: liberty, equality, and fraternity. But they do so in such a complicated, subtle way that viewers can sit for hours debating exactly how the abstract concepts are embodied onscreen. Contrast this with Matrix Reloaded, which truly wants to tackle philosophy but makes its core obsessions the subject of tedious and overspecific chunks of dialogue - Kieslowski and his collaborators take an idea, digest it, and drop it into our world to see how it gets along with everyday reality.

In Bleu, for instance, the wife of a famous composer is the survivor of a car wreck where both her husband and daughter are killed. Unable to kill herself and unwilling to live in grief, she tries to sever all ties to her previous life and create a new one. This time around, she wants to be unencumbered by allegiances to those around her; without ever putting the question into words, the film asks whether it is possible for the woman (played with a cool unknowability by Juliette Binoche) to remain free in this way. But her idea of liberty isn't necessarily ours: By connecting with others (and making herself vulnerable to the same kinds of losses she has just suffered), we wonder if it wouldn't be freeing herself from the grief she tries to suppress. Everything about the film, from color schemes and cinematography to the gorgeous score, contributes to one or multiple interpretations, and the screenplay never rules anything out. The result (as with Rouge and Blanc) is a film that lives on in the audience's mind long after the credits roll. Kieslowski's early death (in his mid-50's; he had announced his retirement but was already planning another trilogy) was a tragedy for the cinema - but the unusual potency of his filmmaking makes these films more alive today than most of this year's most ambitious releases. •


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