Monday, June 19, 2006


The Decalogue, Part Six
, Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1988, 58 minutes.
Source: The Decalogue [DVD 86]

The film opens with a woman going into a post office to pick up a money order that she received a notice in the mail was to be picked up. The young man behind the counter says there isn’t an order. She asks him to check again; there is nothing. She seems slightly perturbed, but she walks away.

This is how we are introduced to our main characters in the sixth segment of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s epic 10-part series of short films called The Decalogue. Originally produced for Polish television, the ten films together are meant to have been inspired by the Ten Commandments; hence, this film responds to the sixth, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” This particular segment is one of the more well-known of the ten, as it was shortly thereafter expanded into an 86-minute version ironically titled A Short Film About Love. (Of note, the fifth segment is the only other to be expanded this way; called A Short Film About Killing, it has often been exhibited and sold together with A Short Film About Love.) Some have mistakenly written that the televised version was cut from the longer copy; the films are significantly different, hence my choice reflects the original televised version.

From the opening, we follow the postal worker as two intercut activities play out over the credits: in one, he steals a small telescope from what appears to be a school science area; in the other, we simply watch from afar as the camera follows the woman in long shot throughout her apartment as she comes home. We quickly learn that his name is Tomek – which is appropriate, given that we quickly learn that the observation described above comes from his voyeuristic activities as he watches her across the apartment courtyard where he lives. (He is a “peeping Tom,” get it?) With shades of a more innocent Rear Window, we watch as he quietly observes her, then calls the gas company to make a visit when she brings a man home. He is naturally obsessed with her, going so far as to become a milkman when he hears her complain at the market that her milk did not arrive. We also learn that he is giving her these false claims for money orders just so that she can talk to him at the post office.

The second time this happens, however, she asks to see a supervisor and, rather than letting things go, the person in charge accuses the woman of trying to cheat the system. Tomek runs after her and confesses what he has done, even that he spies on her. That night, now knowing that he looks at her, she moves her bed, motions for him to call her and tells him to enjoy the show. There is no show, however, as her entering boyfriend is not amused and challenges Tomek to come down, only to give him a black eye. When Tomek delivers the milk the next morning, the woman comes out and asks why he is doing all of this. Tomek responds, “Because I love you.” “What do you want?” she asks, thinking sex, a kiss, something. He says no, none of that. He asks her out for coffee; his exhilarated reaction indicates that she says yes.

At the cafĂ©, she asks why Tomek loves her. He says he doesn’t know, but it isn’t a sexual thing, as he no longer even masturbates while looking at her. She learns that he lives with an older woman whose own son is abroad. She asks him to hold her hand, but he trembles as he does so. They go back to her apartment, where she changes and asks him if he has been with a women before; he says no. She straddles across from him, tells him that she is wet and that means she is aroused. She slowly brings his hands closer to her body, up her legs – but before he gets his hands all the way up, he comes in his pants. She says, “Already?” He nods. She replies, coldly, “That’s what love is. Go wash up.” He runs away.

At this point, we realize that Kieslowski has really only given us Tomek’s point-of-view throughout all of this – that the woman in question remains a mystery to us as well as to Tomek. We only see her from a distance – in long shot, notably with ellipses as she goes from room to room – until he sees her in person; even when they talk on the phone, her voice is mediated trough the phone lines. She is kept at a distance up until now. As viewers, we realize this really only now because at this point – relatively late in the film – our perspective shifts: when Tomek runs from the woman’s apartment, we stay there with her, watch him run back to his own apartment, see her observe which apartment he goes into, and watch her grab her own set of opera glasses to now observe him. Although we are still sketching within the confines of the short film narrative – albeit here in a much longer form – we are now given a new point of view, forcing us as viewers to shift out own perspective about these two characters and, indeed, about love itself.

This becomes important as we head to the conclusion. The woman feels bad and motions for Tomek to call her again, but he does not. She puts up a sign in her window that says, “I was wrong, come back.” But meanwhile, in a moment back to our old point-of-view, we see Tomek has not gone back to his room, but rather to the bathroom, where he slits his wrists. She is therefore startled when she sees an ambulance take someone away and she goes over to enquire of the old woman what happened. The old woman tells her the whole story, shows her the set-up. We then watch her over the next few weeks, frantically searching for more information about Tomek, hoping he has returned – but the old woman says he has not, and he does not yet appear back at his old job. She dismisses her boyfriend, and her appearance starts to become slightly more disheveled. Finally, one day, she goes by the post office and sees him at his window. Relieved, genuinely happy, she steps forward – and before she can say anything, he smiles at her and says, as cold as she was to him, “I no longer look at you from my window.” Cut to black.

The film plays on many standard conventions of love and love stories, while tweaking them in inventful and jarring ways. The shift in perspective has a clear effect on the viewer as, by the end, Tomek’s last comment is as much of a sucker-punch as her comment had been to him earlier. There are certain Polish elements that make this work – most notably, the presence of Soviet-bloc era apartment complexes which exist all over Poland and therefore make Tomek’s spying on the woman both believable and rampant – and yet the themes reflected here are universal. Kieslowski would go from this project to directing his Three Colors films (Blue, White and Red), meant to be even more useful in theme. Here, however, the viewer is the person who commits the sin referenced by the sixth commandment: we make certain assumptions based on our knowledge and desire around love stories, and are punished for wanting the happy ending that we want, even if we know this “romance” isn’t right.


Rhead said...
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Rhead said...

A key point of tension in this film is not that Tomek spies on the woman--who easily assumes the cooperative role of exhibitionist as well as, later, the peeper--but that the woman challenges the existence of love.

It is obvious in the film that the one who doesn't believe in love is the one committing the sin of adultery. In fact, it would seem that the very absence of love makes that sin possible. Tomek--loving Tomek, heart-swollen Tomek--he, HE does not want sex, that dirty rite. HE wants ice cream.

In this light whatever creepiness Tomek is guilty of in effecting his obsession (he's a very committed, talented little peeper) is only a misdemeanor in the moral system of the film. The woman's casual approach to sex constitutes the felony: she's the adulterer (or, technically, fornicator). Appropriately, she is stripped of a name and given, instead, a title: "SSIA": She Spreads It Around. This acronym is more of a broad category for all those anonymous women at whom men so endearingly peep, about whom they laugh, and whom they objectify. And, just when the film switches to the woman's viewpoint to rehabilitate the viewer's imprecise view of her, the woman simply serves as a lesson to all those who fail to believe in love. She remains an anonymous and deserving archetype of a phallogocentric economy.

And though she sees the light after her encounter with Tomek it would seem that she must, according to poetic justice and the filmic powers that be, suffer for her sin.

Tomek utters the jury's decision: "I no longer peep at you."

With this pronouncement Love, thank God, is redeemed, and the antics that Love justifies are restored to their proper place as simple endearments. Mail theft, impersonation, harassment, and peeping become, in contrast to the woman's heartless, loveless sex (and, what's more, DISBELIEF IN LOVE), testaments not only to the existence of love but also to its true, pure, and beautiful nature, something for which we ought all strive.

In the biblical (read patriarchal) economy of this short film, peeping Tomek learns the bitter truth about women, those whores, and becomes a better man for it. Another bildungsroman for the all-boys grammar school.

The woman, meanwhile, reinforces a stereotype so familiar to bible readers: when it is an issue of adultery, it is the woman who ought to "go her way and sin no more." Thanks to the exemplary concision of the bible, for all we know Jesus slapped men guilty of adultery on the back over a couple of cold ones and asked, "How was it?" Tomek's perversions, in this film, were just that forgiveable.