Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Love is a companion piece not only to the landmark 1988 Dekalog miniseries, from which this expanded version originally came, but also the likewise enriched and deepened A Short Film About Killing. (It’s worth noting here that even if you’ve already seen the segment this film is based on in its original form, side-by-side with the other nine parts, the radically different and far more redemptive ending makes Love worth seeing separately.) Like all the episodes of the Dekalog, it purports to take its inspiration from one of the Ten Commandments, but in practice the segments only deal with a rigid moral law in the most obtuse and poetic way. Love dealt with the sixth commandment (against fornication), but the story of Tomek, a late-teen voyeur obsessed with Magda, a voluptuous and sexually mature woman living in an apartment across the courtyard from him, is far less brusque than its textual antecedent would indicate (though Kieslowski’s viewpoint certainly stresses a strain of auteurist omniscience and acumen). In fact, as Love progresses and Magda comes to realize the depth of emotion Tomek feels for her, it becomes increasingly clear that the film owes far less to the Bible than it does to Rear Window, not only for its portrait of social isolation and the resulting Peeping Tom syndrome, but also for its fascinated bemusement at the exaggerated barriers people insist on putting up between themselves and the objects they desire. (The crucial difference between the two filmmakers’ portraits of attempted one-way social contact is that while cracked boundaries manifest themselves in violent rupture in Hitchcock’s world, Kieslowski’s culminates in a simultaneously ecstatic and ruinous sexual release.) Given that some theologians interpret the commandment “thou shall not commit adultery” against the idea that women were not contemporarily treated as romantic equals but instead as property, A Short Film About Love’s exquisite sense of auto-erotic compartmentalization takes on a greater resonance, as Tomek’s deification of Magda flips the Biblical sex roles around. Tomek may be playing puppetmaster with telephone pranks and fake money order notices, but it is Magda who, through the awesome power of her worldly vagina, owns Tomek’s sex drive. In practical modern terms, however, the commandment seems to be a repudiation of hollow sex (represented by Magda’s booty calls) and an order to always strive for spiritually fulfilling relationships based on mutuality.
Kieslowski’s deceptively simple film (with unfussy cinematography by Witold Adamek and a straightforward yet stirring piano-dominated score by Zbigniew Preisner) might have been inspired by the most straightjacket-like of God’s interactions with humankind, but it speaks with the tranquility of a parable.
An obscured thief breaks into a school gymnasium at night to steal a portable telescope from the science lab. On the following morning, the thief, Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) sets up the telescope on his desk, facing the window of his room, and across the courtyard into an adjacent apartment. Later in the day, an attractive, hurried woman named Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska) stops by the post office in order to claim a money order after receiving a notification in her mailbox, only to be informed by the attentive young postal clerk, Tomek, that there is nothing being held at the station on her behalf. Back home, Tomek sets his alarm clock to 8:00 pm, the approximate time of Magda’s return home. Tomek would prepare his meals and dine in the privacy of his room, away from the curious gaze of his godmother (Stefania Iwinska), and spend hours observing Magda as she goes through the routine of her household tasks, often placing anonymous, silent telephone calls to hear the sound of her voice. However, his cursorily voyeuristic behavior towards Magda seems incongruously devoid of sexual connotation, as Tomek discreetly looks away from the all-too-frequent occasions when she brings home a lover, or attempts to sabotage her liaisons by dispatching interruptive repair service calls to her apartment. Painfully self-conscious and unable to express his affection for the uninhibited Magda, Tomek persists in his pathetic and reprehensible surveillance until one day when his overplayed false notification ruse results in an acrimonious altercation with the unwitting, skeptical postmaster.
An expanded, feature-length re-working of Decalogue VI: Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s magnum opus television project, Decalogue, A Short Film About Love is a sublime and provocative exploration on the nature of desire, connection, and intimacy.
Interplaying colors of red and white, Kieslowski uses conventional visual symbols to convey the ideals of purity and love: the fragmented shot of a surgically bandaged hand; Tomek’s reckless game of chance (which he performs over a piece of red cloth used to cover the telescope) that cuts to Magda as she traces figures over the spilled milk on her kitchen table; the painted glass block wall near the entrance of Magda’s apartment that visually frames Tomek during his deliveries; the image of blood against a ceramic sink. Moreover, Kieslowski’s allusive use of thematic colors in his subsequent films, Three Colors: White and Three Colors: Red, to represent equality (White) and fraternity (Red), is similarly manifested in the film as Tomek reaches a figurative equality with Magda after the transformative, humiliating encounter, and Magda (whose birth name, uncoincidentally, is Maria Magdalena) finds redemption from her wanton past through her connection with Tomek. In the haunting final sequence that markedly diverges from the resigned and disaffected conclusion of Decalogue VI, Magda is able to look through a metaphoric window into her own calloused, world-weary soul, and is provided with a glimpse of humanity that still remains intact.
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Subtitles:English & Romanian .srt,french