With all the buzz surrounding the ambitious trailer of the even more ambitious Cloud Atlas film, I thought it a good time to re-visit an earlier film of Tom Tykwer, who is co-directing Cloud Atlas with the Wachowski siblings (of The Matrix fame). Having already seen his Run Lola Run (1998), I opted for Heaven (2002), which was penned by Krzysztof Kieślowski (who directed the Three Colors trilogy, among others) and his long-time writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz.
Before its title sequence, Heaven has the makings of something unforgettable. Beginning with a flight simulation more than a little reminiscent than the animated segments ofRun Lola Run, there is already aesthetic intrigue. Who we are watching and why we are watching them is not immediately clear, but the scene instantly piques curiosity and accompanying dialogue serves as a thematic epigraph. It then jumps into a masterfully cross-cut look at the actions of an assassin (Cate Blanchett), her target, a family, and a janitor in a way that maximizes the impact of what becomes an unforgivable mistake. Tykwer’s framing pays a special attention to architecture—notice the elevator here, a desk later in the movie, and the bathroom even later—and from the beginning it conveys a sense of connection and unity. These traits build suspense and encourage immersion like very few can. When it is all over, we want to understand the assassin, who tells the police her name, Philippa. In these first few minutes before the title sequence, Heaven has almost fulfilled its name’s promise.
Tykwer slows down, giving us a chance to catch up, but he does not lose our attention. As Philippa pours her heart out during interrogation it becomes hard to root against her. She is a teacher who has lost her husband and even students to drugs, and because her reports were ignored, she was driven to attempt murder. We instantly suspect and quickly learn that that the Carabinieri interrogating her are involved in the drugs, so they erased all the signs Philippa gave them pointing toward the dealer. Blanchett is an absolute tour de force in these scenes, making it impossible to side against her even before we know any of this. Consequently, we somehow find ourselves rooting for the woman whose extreme solution led her to accidentally kill four innocent people.
A pair of interesting happenings connect Philippa to one of the Carabinieri, Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi), and suspense once again reaches a fever pitch in a methodical, deliberately yet excellently paced sequence, and Heaven’s biggest themes, the forgiveness and morality that mark Kieslowski’s work and the fate vs. coincidence that marks Tykwer’s, begin to emerge, but the story also takes a turn for the worse, and the suspense that powered the film totally evaporates. That these two are meant to be together, that they are two halves of the same whole, is obvious. The similarity of the names, if not a large enough sign on its own, is punctuated with an exclamation mark when we learn that the two share a birthday. As if to pound in the message, they also, at some point off screen, begin to dress exactly the same, and we watch Philippa have her head shaved like Filippo’s. While far more visual and cinematic an indicator, it is curious because Philippa admits that she wants to be caught and wants to repay her debt to society for her crime.
Philippa has a strong backstory and is intelligent, so it is sad to see that always one step behind her male counterpart. The dialogue and aesthetic keep telling us that these two are equal, so why is it that she can only attain freedom, be forgiven, and achieve her goals with his help? Filippo never had clear goals regardless, but that Philippa does not appear to help him with anything is appalling considering the film starts off with such a determined female hero.
The final act of Heaven is filled with other misfires. We see a few hints of Kieslowski’s morality and forgiveness, but they are too often content to be present instead of being explored. Philippa’s confession in a church is strong, but the final shot serves to provide a plot point for the first scene. What it has to say about forgiveness or redemption is minimal, as if it is given rather than earned. The final scenes are saved by astonishing cinematography. Filmed almost entirely from a helicopter, our look at the protagonists aims to place them in relation to the natural world, just as the first two scenes sought to place humans in context of what we do to and for each other. There are not enough words to express the beauty of these final five minutes. Still, it’s a cherry on a top of a cake that has gone sour on its final slices. Heaven lets you in paradise immediately and then keeps it in sight for the worst amount of time. A little longer and we would be satisfied. A little shorter and we would at least forget what we are missing.