Krzysztof Kieślowski on Crafting an Experience

I recently re-watched the Three Colors trilogy by the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski (1941-1996). I first watched the three films when I was in college. I think I understood more and saw more in the films than I did when I was younger. Growing up, having traveled, and some knowledge of the history and one of the languages spoken in the film (French) all helped. But even back then I was deeply touched by the films the first time I watched them.

I also appreciated more Kieślowski's mastery of the film language.

The DVD edition of the trilogy comes with an extra feature called “Krzysztof Kieślowski's Cinema Lesson”, in which the director talked about the making of one significant scenes in each of the trilogy. In particular, he talked about the filming process and the editing choices involved. This is the auteur dissecting his own work in details.

In Blue, for example, there's a famous “sugar cube scene”, starting at 52′20″ and lasting about five seconds. Julie, the heroine, is found sitting in a café by Olivier. Julie has recently lost her husband and daughter in a car accident, and she tries hard to leave everything in her life behind. Olivier, who has worked with her husband on a song commissioned by the European Union, becomes a lover and puts an effort in finding her. Julie turns him down in the café. After he leaves, she plays with the sugar cube that comes with her coffee, while a flute player on the street is playing a number that sounds very similar to one of the motives in the commissioned (but yet finished) song.

Here's Kieślowski talking about how he required the cube to be soaked in coffee in exactly five seconds, and the rationale behind it. Emphasis mine:

This is a sugar cube about to fall in the cup of coffee. What does this obsession with close-ups mean? Simply that we're trying to show the heroine's world from her point of view, to show that she sees these little things, things that are near her, by focusing on them, in order to demonstrate that the rest doesn't matter to her.

It seems easy to film a sugar cube soaking up coffee, sucking it up and turning brown. […] We can start a stopwatch. It should take five and a half seconds or five seconds to be completely soaked. How to make sure that it only takes five seconds? Not so easy. Let's take a regular sugar cube, like this one, and soak it in my coffee. I'll start the stopwatch... Eight seconds. That's three seconds too long. We had to prepare one that would be soaked in five seconds. We decided such a detail shouldn't last more than five seconds. For half a day, my assistant tested all kinds of sugar cubes, […]

What do we care about a stupid sugar cube sucking up some stupid coffee? Nothing… unless we are, for a moment, in our heroine's world. She dips a sugar cube in her coffee and focuses on it to reject the offer that the man who loves her just made her. […]

And when you ask me if I think about the viewer, about the viewer's point of view — I go back to this stupid sugar cube — I try always to keep this in mind. We don't do previews, test screenings. I believe an audience can take four and a half seconds of sugar soaking, but that eight and a half would be too much.