Grief in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s No End

There is a scene in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s No End that will always haunt me. The film is about a widow whose husband continues to haunt her after death. One day, the widow–Urszula–is at a bar. She sees an British man across the room. He has hands like her husband. The British man mistakes her for a prostitute, but she plays along and goes to a hotel room with him. After they have sex, she asks if he understands Polish. He says he doesn’t. As they lie in bed together, she starts to pour her heart out in Polish. He doesn’t understand a word she says, but that’s the point. She doesn’t want him to understand. She just wants to speak. It’s the first time in the film that she communicates her grief, says it out loud.

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There is such a rawness to the scene, an emotional nakedness that mirrors her physical nudity. Her silence says as much as her words. Her face expresses so much.

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Maybe sometimes we need to speak even if it’s to a stranger. Maybe it doesn’t matter if we are understood. Some of us–myself included–need to put experiences into language. We need to articulate, like Urszula, what it means for someone to be here one moment and then for them not to be here, how that sudden disappearance is profoundly disorienting and destabilizing. Absence, the void, the missing–these are things that, by their very nature, defy language.

I was thinking just recently about how I struggle with language, how I grapple with the unspeakable, how tired I am of words. I’ve filled notebooks with thousands of words and still I haven’t really written anything. What do I want to say? Do I have anything to say?

I write from need. I write from pain. I write from my body and my grief and my despair and my mad aching.

The director Su Friedrich said something interesting in an interview and I’ve been thinking about it ever since I read it. She’s talking about her film I Cannot Tell You How I Feel.

Marchini Camia: So there was a therapeutic aspect to making this film?

Friedrich: No, because this isn’t art therapy. Art therapy is something very particular: People have troubles and they go to an art therapist. They aren’t artists; they’re people with problems who use a paint brush. I’m a person with problems who also is an artist. I don’t disrespect art therapy, but it’s not at all the same thing. If I start thinking about working on a film because the subject has deep emotional resonance for me, I know it’s going to be really hard and that I’m going to have to go to places in my mind that I don’t want to. But it’s also going to be hard because I’ll have to get good footage, good sound, I’ll have to write good texts, and then I’ll have to edit so that it all makes sense and works well. There is a huge, huge, huge amount of craft and thought and planning and consciousness in the process that completely takes over from the emotional stuff.

Also I think the goal of art therapy is that you understand how you’re feeling and you get better. That never happens when you’re making a film!

 

Friedrich is talking about that age-old question of what makes art art. She makes a distinction between art as a form of therapy and art as a craft and a kind of intellectual process. She seems to suggest that people who create purely from a need for therapeutic release or who engage in a more automatic process are not legitimate artists.

I don’t think I agree. I think my idea of art is more expansive than that. Perhaps because my writing process is much more connected with the therapeutic, automatic, instinctual, and cathartic.

Grief blew me apart. Profound loss and mental illness have forever changed me and also changed how I write and why I write. There is a deep silence in me. There is so much that lives inside of me that I cannot articulate. I wonder if I will ever find a language for it, if a language is even possible. If I can’t find that language, have I failed as a writer? Am I a legitimate writer at all? Am I just, in Friedrich’s words, a person with problems who uses a pen? Could what I write ever have meaning beyond myself and my own personal issues? Is art that which transcends the artist and takes on a life inside other people?

Back to Urszula, naked and speaking her grief. Her act of speaking is so interesting to me because she does it on her own terms and in her own language, not in the British man’s. She’s not concerned with being understood. There is something in the act of saying the words. It doesn’t matter if the audience comprehends them.

When you write, you must be prepared to be misunderstood or ignored. You may create a language that few understand, but it is your own.

I also disagree with Friedrich that art therapy eases the pain and makes the practitioner feel better. I don’t write to cure my pain but to bear it.

I find it touching that Urszula is attracted to the British man because his hands remind her of her dead husband’s hands. We perpetually seek out the dead in the living, we watch as they are resurrected in everything, from songs to other people’s body parts. There is no easy way to bear grief when the dead can never be laid to rest, when they haunt us to no end.

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