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Not a Match Made in 'Heaven'

'Run Lola Run's' director is ill-suited to the lyrical story of a woman killer and the cop who loves her.


The story of a bombshell bomber and the lovesick policeman who saves her, "Heaven" was directed by Tom Tykwer, the German wunderkind who a few years back put his native cinema on the MTV generation's map with the enjoyable trifle "Run Lola Run." All razzle-dazzle technique, "Lola" is a gimmick movie--part video game, part steeplechase--about a young woman who literally races through the story to save her nitwit boyfriend from certain disaster.

The film was as irresistible (and inconsequential) as a hooky radio hit, an art-house smash in an age of art-house irrelevance that turned Tykwer into the Next Big European Thing, at least on this side of the pond.

Yet if "Run Lola Run" showed Tykwer had a sure grasp of pop culture, its insistent drive and mutability, you got the sense that if he stayed in one place for long, he would soon be stranded in the shallows of his imagination. The subsequent release of two other features by him, an exercise in style over meaning called "Wintersleepers" and the lugubrious romance "The Princess and the Warrior," did little to ease doubts about Tykwer's gifts.

There was enough in both films, hints of visual intelligence and a willingness to slow to the tempo of real life, to suggest he might be able to do justice (or at least little harm) to his next project, "Heaven," based on a screenplay co-written by the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. As it happens, however, Tykwer's surface flash isn't just a poor fit with Kieslowski's lyrical pessimism; it completely contradicts everything Kieslowski's work aspired to, including the condition of art.

In "Heaven," Cate Blanchett stars as Philippa, a British schoolteacher living in Turin, Italy, who tries to avenge her dead husband by killing his drug dealer. She leaves a bomb in a wastebasket in the dealer's office, but fate transports the device into an elevator carrying a father, his two young daughters and the innocent agent of this tragedy, a cleaning woman. After her arrest, Philippa learns of her mistake and sheds a couple of tears that are tenderly if somewhat hastily wiped away by a carabiniere with the providential name of Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi). Instantly smitten, Filippo arranges for Philippa's escape from a law enforcement agency that for its sheer comic ineptitude is matched only by the Keystone Kops.

Written shortly before Kieslowski's death in 1996, "Heaven" was the first feature in a proposed trilogy by the late director and his long-term writing partner, Krzysztof Piesiewicz. (Piesiewicz went on to finish the screenplays for "Hell" and "Purgatory" with another writer.) In interviews, Tykwer has charted the course of the project, explaining how, in the course of developing the script, the original 60-page text was first translated from Polish into French, then English, then German, then English again. It was at that point that he and one of the film's 15 assorted producers, British director Anthony Minghella, joined forces to hone the final version.

Although his focus shifted over the years, Kieslowski maintained a keen interest in the divide between the secular and the spiritual, whether in his masterpiece, "The Decalogue," based on the Ten Commandments, or in "Three Colors," a triptych of features based on the ideals represented by the French tricolor. In "Blue," the most wrenching feature in the trilogy, yet another widow engulfed in grief recovers a sense of self only when she helps to finish her husband's uncompleted concerto. The act of creation liberates her from her past but doesn't provide her with an obvious happy ending; as with many of Kieslowski's characters, she remains shrouded in ambiguity.

There's no such uncertainty in "Heaven," which doesn't have the courage of its conceit, only an abundance of bad ideas and worse taste. After she's arrested, Philippa explains that she was not only trying to avenge her husband's death, she was also going after a dealer who sold drugs to children. That's dubious logic even for a sociopath. What makes it worse is that because the filmmakers are more interested in making Philippa likable than in exploring moral ambiguity and the distance between chance and choice, they don't just try to excuse her violence with appeals to vigilante justice, they try to shape her into a figure of romantic tragedy. It's a transformation that's as spurious as it is offensive, and one that becomes more ridiculous with every scene.

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