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Blog // Thoughts
August 29, 2006

L’ Enfer (Hell)

‚ÄúThe past is malleable and flexible, changing as our recollection interprets and re-explains what has happened.‚Äù Peter Berger Medea is ancient play by Euripides in which a mother, full of anger jealousy, kills her own children in response to her husband‚Äôs betrayal and infidelity. It is a complex, uncomfortable and eternal story. You do not […]

“The past is malleable and flexible, changing as our recollection interprets and re-explains what has happened.”
Peter Berger

Medea is ancient play by Euripides in which a mother, full of anger jealousy, kills her own children in response to her husband’s betrayal and infidelity. It is a complex, uncomfortable and eternal story. You do not have to be familiar with the play to engage with the L’ Enfer, but it helps since the film is an explicit meditation on Medea’s choices, set in a contemporary and plausible context.

L’Enfer was originally conceived by the late film maker Krzysztof Kieslowski along with colleague Krzysztof Piesiewicz as part of a trilogy on the final states of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. Piesiewicz went on to finish the three screenplays. The first of which was filmed in 2002 and resulted in the truly risible Heaven.

However, in L’Enfer we have something all together deeper, darker and more disturbing. The opening credits unsettle the viewer with the image of a newly hatched, still featherless bird pushing its sibling eggs out of the nest to their death. The bird itself, in the madness of exertion falls out, but is rescued by a man leaving prison. Upon re-entering the nest, the hatchling continues its fratricidal rampage.

We then see the unfolding story of three estranged sisters (C?©line – Karin Viard, Sophie – Emmanuelle B?©art, Anne – Marie Gillain). The narrative is rich and generous. We are introduced to more characters and more detail than is strictly necessary to tell the story. Without this, two of the subplots would seem far too contrived and obvious. Instead, we get to see more perspectives on the characters and their motivations and failings.

This is important, because when it comes the men in L ‘Enfer, failure is the key motif. From, the absent and morally ambiguous fathers, suspect old men, romantic admirers and the door-locking priest, this is a film about masculine failure. None of the men manage to be what they seem, to content themselves with the good they have in their lives. The one character, who, in the end finds peace in himself, arrives there only by a string of destructive cowardice and lies.

The three sisters each have their own struggles with men and each are unable to cultivate healthy relationships. Early in the film, it is clear that the absence of a father-figure may have played some part in this. They are also, in their jealousy, coldness and infatuation plagued by the mistakes of their familial past. They try to remake themselves away from the hard and stoic dignity of their mother, but only when they finally come together, is it clear how far they have failed to journey; they are still, in some ways, trapped in their adolescence, at the point where tragedy redefined their family for ever.

Medea killed her children in a real sense Рthe mother in L’ Enfer (played by Carole Bouquet) did it in a more symbolic and emotional manner. The mythic power of both these stories is that parents are so often prepared to sacrifice their children as a way to deal with intractable problems in their own lives.

That’s not to say L ‘Enfer is a simple treatise against divorce or broken families, it is much more subtle than that. However, it does make us think about emotional determinism, what family therapists call systemic problems. Families create patterns of behavior that can be very hard to break, even from one generation to the next.

But as much as it is a film about the past shaping the future, L’Enfer is also a film about how we choose to reshape or forget the past. The mother and her three daughters all struggle with what they can remember and how they choose to remember. At times they lack the capacity to learn from their mistakes, at other times they choose to reconfigure how they think about the past to make the present more bearable or coherent.

Our memory is capacity and hermeneutics. We remember what we can and that which we do remember is always subject to interpretation. L’ Enfer is a meditation on memory and forgetting in both senses. The things we choose to forget Рpeople, events, even God (made explicit in a central monologue) and the things we are unable to remember clearly Рfrom our childhood, because we did not have enough information, or because of the passing of time.

One of the most powerful scenes was when EB’s character was watching her children play in the courtyard of a church (while we are hearing the end of ?s monologue on Medea and the way we have forgotten God). We see a priest walk behind her and into the church. She is happy watching her children play on a swing, it is one of the few moments in the film when we see her truly joyful. Then a rainstorm opens and she rushes her children to the door of the church only to find it locked. Her frustrated attempts to open the door echo the way she locked her own husband out in order to protect her children (as her mother had done when she was a child). Unable to find shelter in the church, she steps back into the rain and in a shot from above we see her enjoying the feeling of the rain on her face. Hers is a moment of freedom and transcendence while locked outside a church!

L’ Enfer is a rewarding film that is beautifully filmed, with many scenes and shots deeply evocative of Kieslowski’s style. The direction, from relative newcomer Danis Tanovic is respectful of Kieslowski, but powerful in its own way. The casting is solid and the acting compelling (especially older sis and EB). It is not a film that pulls you towards obvious emotional reactions, but does at times make for unnerving viewing. It uncompromisingly faces the conflicted and unresolved tensions of family life. It may not quite be up there with the best of Kieslowski’s work, but it is a very good footnote to his genius and quite possibly one of the best films of the year.

[tags] L’ Enfer, Hell, Kieslowski [/tags]

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