A memory continues to haunt the present-day lives of three sisters in “Hell,” the second of a trilogy co-conceived by vet screenwriter Krzystof Piesiewicz and helmer Krzystof Kieslowski shortly before the latter’s death in 1996. Despite its pedigree and starry cast, the pic seems destined for only modest arthouse business in Gaul (where it opens Nov. 30) and abroad, perhaps keeping the trilogy’s planned third chapter, “Purgatory,” in limbo.
Like the first film in the series, the Tom Tykwer-directed “Heaven,” “Hell” bears Kieslowski’s traces in its elliptical structure, allegorical resonances (the model here being Dante’s “Inferno”) and concern with predestination vs. free will. But even more than Tykwer’s pic, this sophomore outing for “No Man’s Land” director Danis Tanovic is a triumph of self-consciously clever plotting and a slick visual style over superficial ideas.
Following a nifty title sequence (in which a newborn baby bird is seen willfully pushing several un-hatched eggs out of the nest), pic introduces sisters Sophie (Emmanuelle Beart), Celine (Karin Viard) and Anne (Marie Gillain), who have drifted apart since a traumatic childhood incident that ended with the girls’ father (Miki Manojlovic) sent to prison and their mother (Carole Bouquet) rendered mute and consigned to a wheelchair.
Today, Sophie is married to a successful photographer (Jacques Gamblin) possessed of a wandering eye, Anne is an architecture student embroiled in an affair with one of her professors (Jacques Perrin) and Celine has become her mother’s permanent caretaker.
The siblings have grown so far apart that they do not even know each other’s exact whereabouts, but when a handsome stranger (Guillaume Canet) begins making inroads into each of their lives, it gradually draws them together again, and back into their shared past.
Just who that stranger is and what exactly his connection is to the events of 20 years ago is a secret that “Hell” holds close to its vest until well into its running time, with Piesiewicz and Tanovic employing an intricate series of reversals and revelations to keep the game up for as long as they can.
Like “Red,” the concluding film in Kieslowski’s acclaimed “Three Colors” trilogy, “Hell” is structured as a kind of puzzle box in which there are no such things as chance encounters, history is forever verging on repeating itself and the flap of one bird’s wings can cause incalculable repercussions.
Pic jumps back in forth in time and gradually makes connections between the characters of which they themselves are unaware. But whereas, in Kieslowski’s hands, those motifs lent richly compelling human dramas, a sense of mystery and spirituality, in “Hell” they are mechanical devices intended merely to keep us guessing. Pic’s climactic revelation is neither suspenseful, surprising nor satisfying.
For a movie with such a fiery title, “Hell” is a decidedly cold, protracted work marked by solid, but passionless performances and a preference for polished, fashion-magazine imagery (courtesy of cinematographer Laurent Dailland). Tech departments are strong, though the thundering portent of Tanovic and composer Dusko Segvic’s original score wears out its welcome relatively early.