“Heaven,” David Byrne once sang, “is a place where nothing ever happens” and while Heaven the movie, for its first two-thirds at least, is as eventful as the sort of political thriller it vaguely resembles, its final and deeply anticlimactic third inches toward the kind of blissful obliteration that the erstwhile Talking Head probably had in mind.
Like the much-discussed A.I. (Kubrick-Spielberg) and the more under-the-radar L’Enfer (Clouzot-Chabrol), Heaven is a collaboration between two distinct artistic personalities, one deceased and one still with us. The script was written by the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski (with his longtime writing partner, Krzysztof Piesiewicz) and the film was made by German director Tom Tykwer. It’s not an obvious match-up.
Kieslowski is most famous for the interlocking-stories anthology, Decologue (1988), and the Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94), films of quiet beauty and (for the most part) almost painful solemnity. Tykwer’s most coherent and, not incidentally, most entertaining film has been the kinetic Run Lola Run (1998), a witty trifle spiked with pop profundity. It’s true that Tykwer has shown, with Winter Sleepers (1997) and The Princess and The Warrior (2000), that Lola was something of an anomaly in his growing body of work, but he still seems to be a director of impressive set pieces rather than an organic storyteller. With Heaven, his snazzy postmodern viewpoint bumps up against Kieslowski’s more monastic, reflective temperament with mixed results.
The first part of the story, telling of how a woman seeking revenge inadvertently becomes a terrorist, how she’s apprehended and escapes, plays to Tykwer’s strengths and suggests that if he were to resist his more pretentious impulses he could become a solid director in the Hitchcockian tradition.
The setting is Turin, Italy. A foreshadowing prologue which takes place in a helicopter is followed by a long credit sequence during which a woman named Philippa (Cate Blanchett), a British national who’s in Italy as a teacher, is shown planting a bomb in a wastebasket in a high-rise office building. We assume she’s some sort of terrorist, though she takes care to insure that one particular man is killed in the bomb blast, using a ruse to get his secretary out of the office. Unfortunately, a cleaning woman picks up the lethal receptacle just before it explodes and carries it to an elevator where she and another innocent bystander, along with his two children, are killed. All this occurs before the film’s title comes on screen.
Philippa is quickly apprehended and during the ensuing police interrogation is shocked to find out that her plot to kill a man whom she knows is a high-level drug dealer and whom she believes to be responsible for the death of her husband and at least one of her students has resulted in the loss of innocent life. Philippa refuses to speak Italian during her questioning (an unexplained plot device), so a young carabinieri named Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi) is brought in to translate. He immediately falls in love with her and decides to help her escape. This sudden affinity has to be taken on faith and suggests that perhaps Philippa-Filippo are two sides of a metaphysical coin fated to be united.
The escape sequence is another suspenseful set piece — but once the star-crossed lovers are on the lam, the movie’s momentum starts to dissolve and Tykwer’s sure hand grows more unsteady. Having admirably punched up the inherent tension of the film’s initial plot turns, the best he can do with Kieslowki’s languidly ambiguous resolution is to prettify it.
Perhaps a more romantic figure than Ribisi who, though he brings a certain sweetness to his role, seems ill-matched with the always-charismatic Blanchett, would have given more heft to the film’s doomed-lovers motif. In any event, as the movie drifts from faux realism, a perfectly apt mode for a suspense film, to pastoral mysticism, it becomes apparent that Tykwer doesn’t have the gravitas to pull off this sort of suggestive denouement and the idea of love lifting our protagonists out of harm’s way — a literal ascent to heaven — seems like a narrative cop-out.
Perhaps the lesson of posthumous collaborations, in light of this film, along with the abovementioned A.I. and L’Enfer, is that they’re a temptation best resisted.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].