A Short Film About Love
Having risen to international fame in the early nineties on the back of the renowned trilogy Trois Couleurs, Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski exhibited some of his finest work in his 1988 Dekalog. A ten-part television series, which aired in his native Poland, Dekalog takes each of the Mosaic Commandments and fashions a modern-day narrative around it. Of these ten episodes, two were extended by the director into featurette films: A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. The second of these films proves to be a cinematic masterpiece, in which the audience is forced to confront their own romantic perceptions of love.
Set in a Warsaw apartment complex, Kieslowski highlights a decaying Soviet world through the colouring he employs. It is a vision of grey shades, infrequently punctuated by moments of vibrancy which only serve to highlight the cultural malaise that has stricken the nation. Everything that we see during this ninety-minute portrait draws attention to the sheer mundanity of much of human existence. The protagonist, Tomek, is a withdrawn postal clerk whose developing infatuation for his beautiful neighbour Magda forms the basis of the plot and links this extended episode into the Dekalog theme: Thou shalt not commit adultery. From across the apartment complex, Tomek is able to see into Magda’s life, spying on her with a telescope. This voyeurism comes from both a sense of sexual impotence and an emotional numbness, which on the one hand draws him nearer and on the other, prevents him from realising his fantasy.
The fundamental crux of the film turns around the declaration by Magda that: ‘There is no such thing as love – only sex’; through Tomek’s eyes we are forced to engage with this message. Whilst there is no doubt that Tomek’s sexual attraction for Magda plays a role in his obsessive voyeurism, it is the mundane, daily tasks that he watches most. Indeed, when she invites a man around to the house, Tomek is unable to bring himself to watch them have sex. One gets the sense that this is not out of social embarrassment but out of a rejection of the premise that love is simply the illusion behind which sex lies. By refusing to watch her in coitus, Tomek preserves an innocence to his affection that comes as close to true love as Kieslowski ever allows his characters to enjoy.
Eventually Tomek and Magda’s lives collide with one another, and the young man is able to explore his own notions of romantic affection, telling Magda that he loves her; however, the jaded older woman is unable to see him as anything more than a sexual partner. Having been taken back to Magda’s apartment, Tomek offers her a small gift; and yet, in an act that defines the end of the film, she refuses it, telling him that she does not deserve his kindness. Rejecting his emotional love, Magda runs the young man’s hand up her naked thigh causing him to orgasm, ejaculating before he is able even to penetrate her. Embarrassed by this further sign of sexual inadequacy, he flees from her room and, upon arriving back at his own, takes a razor blade to his writs. Kieslowski’s direction at this moment is wonderfully subtle, and we are left questioning whether it is Tomek’s shattered image of love or his inability to consummate his passions that has caused this mental collapse. Either way, he is caught between the two extremes of love and lust, unable to exist within either.
His suicide attempt becomes the single moment of self-mastery for Tomek in the whole film; and yet, even this is a failure, with Tomek eventually recovering from his wounds. However, this moment of passion ignites something within Magda whose concern for her young friend is perhaps an indication of some emotional attachment. In a revised ending to the film, some hope is offered, with an earlier scene of Magda crying replayed by Kieslowski, only this time, Tomek is on hand to comfort her.
This is certainly not a film that can be watched casually; and yet, for those who are able to enter into Kieslowski’s world, it is one that compels return. The stripped down script and the willingness to linger on single unflinching images, makes this film a fitting tribute to the end of Soviet Russia and the hope that might have been restored with its collapse. However, outside of the political context, this film is a masterpiece in human psychology. Every detail is carefully considered to create this world of futility and hope; and for those who work their way to its conclusion, it is the latter that this film impresses upon us.
W. J. Humphries