Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Thursday, May 8, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Dekalogue 6 (1989)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Starring: Olaf Lubaszenko, Grazyna Szapolowska

I’ve only been able to see three instalments of the Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalogue, but the strength of those films is enough to convince me of the worthiness of the other seven. I vacillated quite a bit about how to include this, whether to include all three episodes that I’ve seen, or simply focus on one; not including the Dekalogue at all never entered the realm of possibility. I chose Dekalogue 6, partly because it was the first one that I saw and so compelled me to seek out other episodes, but mostly because it is simply so powerful that years later, elements of it still come floating back to me as vividly as when I first saw it.

On the surface, this is a fairly simple film. It focuses on two characters: Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) and Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska), who lives across the street and whom Tomek worships from afar. He spies on her as she entertains men in her apartment, takes a job as a milkman to get closer to get, and does what he can to spoil her dates. Eventually they come together and he declares his love to her. She responds by humiliating him sexually, informing him that there’s no such thing as love, only sex. Degraded and disillusioned, he runs away and attempts suicide. When he returns from the hospital, the tables turn and the film splits, ceasing to be told from Tomek’s perspective. We now watch through Magda’s eyes as she becomes increasingly obsessed with Tomek, or at least obsessed by what she’s done to him.

The film plays heavily with ideas of masculinity and femininity, and relations between the sexes. It begins with Magda as object, possessed by Tomek from a distance. The telescope he uses to spy on her (which has obvious phallic symbolism) brings her closer to him but also keeps her at a safe distance. He’s able to look at her without having to directly deal with her, which preserves the fantasy version of her that he’s created in his head. When they come together, Tomek ceases to be active in his relationship with Magda, who is no longer the passive object of his gaze. It is Tomek who is passive in the face of Magda’s aggressive sexuality, and his loss of subjectivity, as well as the loss of his idealized vision of Magda, almost destroys him.

The loss also profoundly affects Magda. Following Tomek’s suicide attempt, there is a scene where she breaks down after spilling a bottle of milk. Earlier in the film Tomek took a job delivering the milk so that he could be close to her, but the spilling of milk also has sexual symbolism in that Tomek’s humiliation comes in the form of premature ejaculation. Magda’s despair derives not only from the fact that she hurt Tomek, but also from the fact that she robbed him of his innocence.

While Tomek is the protagonist through whom we see most of the film, Magda is ultimately the more interesting character. Perhaps it is because Tomek’s desires are so simple – first he wants Magda and then, after discovering that she’s not what he wants her to be, decides (and cheerfully declares) that she is not, after all – while Magda’s desires are more vague. What does Magda want? What is she seeking in her encounters with men? And did she ultimately want to be peeped at (Tomek doesn’t have to go out of his way to watch her; everything he sees happens in front of windows left open in rooms where all the lights are on) so that she could extract revenge on the watcher? Magda could easily be the stereotypical castrating female, but instead she’s a very sympathetic character, as fascinating for the audience as she is for Tomek (though in an entirely different way).

Each episode of the Dekalogue is inspired by one of the Ten Commandments, this one being “Though Shalt Not Commit Adultery.” However, if you watched an episode of the Dekalogue cold, you might never guess it’s inspiration because Kieslowski is the rare artist who is able to dramatise a concept rather than just preach about it. The acting in the episodes of the Dekalogue is great, but it’s Kieslowski’s master craftsmanship which elevates the series to a whole new level. These are haunting, tightly focused stories which emphasize the interplay of the human and the spiritual in ordinary, every day lives and directly engage with difficult moral issues, asking the viewer to think, rather than providing us with easy answers. Once you’ve seen one episode of the Dekalogue, you’ll want to see them all.

No comments: