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Thursday
Jul032008

A Short Film about Love

The original version of this film was filmed for Polish television, about twenty minutes shorter, and, most incredibly, a product of the twilight years of a communist regime.  It was also the sixth component of one of the most magnificent cinematic experiments in recent memory which, like all masterpieces, seems more remarkable with time – and not only for its creativity in the face of Philistine censors and shoestring budgets.  One could imagine all kinds of lurid tangles for the sixth commandment (in the Catholic tradition); yet we do not get lurid tangles, or tangles of any sort.  There are no enraged husbands, no murderous mayhem, no handy weapons or crimes of passion.  Instead, there are two lonely souls, lonely for albeit for very different reasons, and a strange date during which one soul is opened to the other, who in turn finds the whole confession gauche and amusing.  Stranger still is the fact that adultery is neither committed nor intended.  This is well in keeping with Kieślowski’s general artistic credo for the Decalogue of simplicity and clarity in unorthodox situations.  The Devil may well be in the details, but he never gets past the surface.  And we dive well below a superficial demonstration of those actions and thoughts that we should not nurture.

Our protagonists are Tomek, an orphan (Olaf Lubaszenko) on the cusp of manhood and the object of Tomek’s desires, a dishy and impulsive forty-year-old (Grażyna Szapołowska) living in an interchangeably gray-brown socialist apartment building across the way.  Tomek has few interests to pass his time: he likes to learn languages (Portuguese, English, French, or so he says), although his pocket money comes from clerking at a local post office where he is granted a certain amount of latitude.  His only acknowledged friend is a coeval sent off on some military expedition, leaving Tomek with his friend’s interchangeably gray-brown room and his officious and elderly mother.  She soothes his introversion and his obvious unfamiliarity with women with wisdom like: “Women allow themselves to be kissed and pretend they are liberated.  But in reality they prefer men who are gentle,” which might be the most appropriate one-word description of her lodger.  She even tries to cajole Tomek into watching a gala event for hormonally overloaded teenage boys, the Miss Poland competition, granted, on a small black-and-white television.  When Tomek quickly retreats to his room, we rightly suspect that he has found something more interesting than girls (a near impossibility for a young heterosexual his age); what we do not gather is that he has replaced all the women in the world with one woman.  In other words, he has fallen in love.

This love is not, however, golden in its crown.  His beloved, whose name is Magda, is blissfully unaware of his feelings for her, and even if she were to learn of them could hardly be enamored with a virginal and unconfident boy who, well, spies on her.  I think all young men have watched beautiful women from afar at some point in their lives.  And it is this proximity to a princesse lointaine that fuels notions of life’s breadth, of how things will work out with an as yet undetermined female in an as yet undetermined future.  Another film suggests an elegant metaphor for this search, but Tomek’s choice is made: there can be no one for him but Magda.  The difference in age notwithstanding, Magda is as promiscuous as Tomek is innocent and pure, as open-windowed and open-legged as Tomek is hidden crouching in the darkness with his telescope pointed firmly in her direction (and yes, that sentence gets the point across).  She is no one’s wife, so the adultery of that sixth commandment might refer to the fact that Tomek’s friend, now duty-bound and uniformed, once spied on Magda as well.  For adolescents and younger men, cheating on your friend’s unattainable love is as real and unacceptable as cheating in the flesh.  Tomek also uses his jobs as postal clerk and milkman to interfere in her love life in more ways than one, leading to a confrontation and a date which, we presume, will end in cruelty and perhaps more impulsive decisions.  A wonderful scene in which Tomek tries to pull a cigarette out of the pack with his mouth and ends up with two, hesitates a moment, then decides to light only one, is only one example of his failure to become a man in the conventional sense.  A man who will take Magda to a lustful realm of pure delight?  A hairy-chested lout with a bad temper and breath full of illegal ingredients?  Tomek might have more going for him than he thinks.

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