Monday, December 31, 2012

Dekalog 6: trying to make connections

I wrote this discussion of the sixth Dekalog film some time ago and it appears elsewhere on the blog. Seeing it again hasn’t altered my opinion. A masterful film about the complex lives of disconnected people, again.


A LONELY young man living somewhere in urban Poland lives in a crowded tenement apartment block and becomes fixated on a woman of around 30-35 who lives in a similar sized apartment opposite. Like James Stewart in ‘Rear Window’, he finds the goings on in the apartment interesting and becomes obsessed, watching with a well -trained pair of binoculars. The woman occasionally takes a lover, other times going to the fridge or unwinding from a busy day, often in underwear, oblivious to the hungry male eyes peering at her.

Krzysztof Kieslowski is an imaginative and daring film director, somewhat in the style of Michael Haneke, in that his audience is often made to feel unsettled. Each time I see one of his films I know I am in for an engaging and truthful ride about ordinary people who somehow find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. ‘A Short Film About Death’ was about an unhinged young man, who seemed to be like many troubled people you might find anywhere on the streets, who happens to unexpectedly murder a taxi driver in bloody and gruesome circumstances. The murder is compelling in its unexpectedness and the taxi driver is totally vulnerable and unsuspecting. It is the manner of the killing that is compelling. He takes a long time to die, after prolonged attempts at strangulation, only to find that he is finally bludgeoned by a rock. Even the killer seems to be grimacing by this point. Like Macbeth, he goes so far, and there seems to be no turning back. Both ‘Death’ and ‘Love’ are part of a long series of films based on the 10 commandments under the title ‘Decalogue.’

 ‘A Short Film About Love’, begins with the young man named Tomek  breaking into what looks like some sort of laboratory, stealing a telescope, intercut with scenes of the young woman in her flat playing cards and pacing about with a paintbrush in a state of undress. When he gets home he begins what will become a nightly ritual of preying on her with his hungry eyes. Of course the film won’t be much unless, like ‘Rear Window’, the subject is interesting and complex in some way. The young woman doesn’t let him down.

To add intrigue to the personality of the young voyeur, we get glimpses of the  lonely home life he shares with his doting grandmother. She ironically asks him to watch ‘Miss Poland’ on the TV, an innocent form of voyeurism, very different to his own version of Miss Poland across the way.

There are phone calls, ones he makes to her, as if the dispassionate distant view of her isn’t enough and he needs to hear her voice. Then he makes the discovery that she has a lover and the sexual embrace turns him away momentarily from the telescope, just when we thought this might ramp up his attention. So, it seems, he is curiously emotionally involved. Another lover.  The same response. This time, in one of the few comic moments in the film, he picks up the phone when he sees the embrace and rings the gas company about an imaginary leak, in her apartment. He is going to do his best to interrupt things. The gas man’s voice on the phone says ‘don’t light anything.’ When he hangs up he immediately lights a cigarette. The gas men come around, superfluously of course, and it works a treat. The love making is disrupted, the mood broken. Tomek laughs devilishly, and in a sudden burst of anger punches a hole in his wardrobe door. It is unsettling and is the first sign of potential derangement.

There is the expected anger and disbelief when Tomek catches up with the woman in the street and tells her he watches her through her window. Later, when the woman challenges Tomek over the reasons he watches her, he tells her in candid fashion it is because he loves her. When she asks him if he wants to kiss her, sleep with her, her experience enters a new realm. She is an object of brutal desire for men, but Tomek is more complicated. He is simply different. He has an emotional need for her that her playboys don’t have. And she finds it fascinating, and appealing.

When Tomek does summon the courage to see her again, he appeals to her in traditional fashion by knocking at her door and asking her for a date for ice cream!  The date organised, Tomek whirls around in circles dragging his milk crate. Kieslowski is presenting Tomek as a child, emotionally stunted. He craves attention and affection and is spectacularly inexperienced. These two are a very unusual match. In a beautifully realised scene, played simply and almost without music, the woman can see two lovers behind her in the café, the male lovingly caressing the female’s hands. She wants this too. She establishes that Tomek has taken her mail, has watched her for a year, and has sent her false money orders via his job at the post office- basically acknowledges in an understated way that this is ‘harassment’:  and yet she wants him to caress her hands.

At her apartment Tomek can see where she lives for the first time without a telescopic lens. Her tenderness and close proximity are unbearable for him, and in a scene vaguely reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach’, Tomek  suddenly runs home, humiliated.

Shifts occur. She turns casual lovers away. She has real feelings for another man. And she briefly turns into voyeur as she tries to tenderly watch over Tomek as she fears for his mental health. As a basin of water turns red with blood, we remember that Tomek has been associated with blood before, blood-red as in violence. Her colour has been white, as in spilt milk when she cried one evening and turned the milk bottle over. She has been in need of the milk of human kindness since the beginning and having found it, is desperate to keep it.

Towards the end of the film the roles are reversed as the woman’s tenderness is awakened and she continually looks out for Tomek who has been recuperating in hospital. She becomes a kind of tender voyeur, as his telescope is replaced by her opera glasses. In another interesting reversal at the very end, she watches over her apartment from Tomek’s telescope in a kind of fantasy play, and can see herself crying over the spilt milk from an earlier scene in which she is crying and at her lowest ebb. Suddenly Tomek appears in the frame and comforts her, tenderly. It is how things might have been. The tragedy therefore is the distance that the two lonely lovers can’t bridge. The music in these final moments is haunting and slow and meditative. This film is a kind of grown up ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and moving in every way. The emotions may have initially appeared cheap but they have turned in the end to something profound.

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