I couldn't tell whether I was watching a comedy or a tragic drama, the bleakest situations were often presented with a subtle comedic element that allowed me to simultaneously harbor feelings of empathy and sadness and at the same time laugh at the almost exaggerated cascade of bad luck that was pouring down on Karol. As I followed along the heartbreaking rollercoaster of a story, I realized that there were two completely different, opposing possible narratives that were forming in my mind about the exact same events unfolding onscreen.
One narrative saw Karol fighting to save his love and marriage with Dominique even though she had given up on it, persevering through the heavy blows of shame, ridicule, and poverty. Also, fleeing a country, and returning home to rebuild his life by any means necessary, even working with criminals and carrying out a therapeutic assassination attempt (he saves the life of the victim who wished to die). In a moving scene, Karol's friend Mikolaj offers him money for Karol to shoot him, Karol obliges yet shoots a blank, and asks him afterwards whether he really wants to die, stating that "We all know pain..." This daring exercise saves Mikolaj's life and grants Karol the money to start his business. Once rich he supports his friends and family, and in one last desperate attempt to save his marriage, he stages a fake-funeral and invites his Dominique to attend. He visits her in her hotel room, and they make love. In the final scene, the police come to arrest her on suspicion of involvement in the fake-funeral and lock her up for interrogation, where Karol visits her outside the window, and they exchange loving glances.
Yet at the same time, I found myself grappling with a totally different narrative of the story, assigning completely different meanings to the same events. I noticed that Karol's stoic responses and lack of emotion made me question my empathy towards him because if he himself wasn't saddened by these horrible events in his life, why should I be? Dominique tells Karol "If I say I love you, you don't understand. And if I say I hate you, you still don't understand. You don't understand that I want you, that I need you. Do you understand? No." Now I began to question whether Karol is some sort of emotionally numb man and Dominique is indeed the victim of his apathy. What man can endure his ex-wife having sex on the phone and being beaten up by thugs upon arriving to his home country smuggled in a large luggage trunk without shedding a tear or expressing any urge to give up? This numbness allows Karol to march on through these bleak events, and to use his cunning to get involved with and outsmart criminal gangsters, who when they realize they've been tricked, come to Karol's house to kill him. While on the brink of being choked to death, Karol coolly reveals he changed his will so that if he dies, the gangsters won't get the property they seek. They let him go and he calmly proceeds to build up his import-export empire. Now for the final fake-funeral, Karol lures Dominque to attend by making out his will to leave her with his entire fortune. Isn't this the most cynical way to get revenge on your ex? To lure her with riches? After the funeral, he visits her in her hotel room, they have the best sex of their marriage, and then he leaves her while she sleeps. A few moments later, the police appear and take her for interrogation. Karol visits outside her window to gloat, exacting his final revenge.
The film offered me two completely different narratives on the same events. Which triggered deep thoughts and feelings about life and how we chose to interpret what happens to us. Is what happens around us driven by love, belief in a better future, courage, friendship, care, and acts of reconciliation? Or cynicism, lack of empathy, cruelty, loneliness, and greed? Kieślowski achieves the highest form of storytelling: he presents the situation in an objective way so that the viewer must decide how to understand it. Not black & white, he paints life in its true gray ambiguous hues. We have the responsibility to interpret the meaning of our lives, our paths, our humanity, our society, and what life is telling us. Good cinema can remind us of this beautiful burden.