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“If a film can act like a thought-experiment, its presentation of a single fictional narrative
will be entirely compatible with its making a valuable contribution to the pursuit of general
philosophical truths” (McClellan 18). As an expansion of Polish director Krzysztof Keislowski’s
Dekalog VI, A Short Film About Love (1988) focuses on the sixth commandment of adultery,
which is initiated through voyeurism.
The philosophy of love and the obsession each of the main characters have with either the idea or physical act can be associated with Søren Kierkegaard’s belief in the self being of two synthesized parts: soul and body, or knowledge and action.
Martin Buber’s work is also significant in describing the transformation of Magda’s (Grazyna Szapolowska) relation with I-It to I-Thou as her encounter with Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) the voyeur.
This transformation does not only occur in Magda’s character, but also in Szapolowska
as she is the cause for the Dekalog’s expansion into A Short Film About Love, demanding a
happy ending for her character while the outcome of Tomek’s despair remains ambiguous.
Translated from its original Polish title, Krótki film o milosci, Kieslowski’s film is set in
Warsaw, Poland. It was released October 21, 1988 by Zespol Filmaway “Tor.” The film, actors,
and director were nominated for an accumulated eleven awards between 1988 and 1991, overall
winning eight of them, including best actress (Szapolowska), and Krzysztof Kieślowski won the
San Sebastián International Film Festival OCIC Award (“A Short Film About Love”).
Tom McClelland’s analysis of voyeurism in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 film, Rear Window,
is significantly related to Keislowski’s film, being a key element in the narrative that can only be
presented through the medium of film as it “systematically prompts a philosophical moral
assessment of ourselves as viewers of film” (30).
Both films present a reflective moment where
the characters realize they are being watched before confronting the voyeur.
As Hitchcock’s character Jeff watches his neighbors, Tomek peeps on a certain woman across the complex, Magda. The audience is aligned with Tomek as “we too are voyeurs, so we are invited to
consider the ethical status of viewing film” (29).
It is not just Tomek spying on his neighbor, but the audience is spying as well. “[Tomek’s] preference for viewing [love) rather than living it also has ramifications for the cinema-goer… [he] opts for a one-way relationship based on voyeurism instead of a two-way relationship rooted in mutual regard” (30). Throughout Keislowski’s film, two other characters look through the telescope: the mother of a friend whom Tomek is staying with, who witnesses the climax between Tomek and Magda, and Magda herself as she looks into her world through the “glass eye” of Tomek.
The climax of the film is when Tomek, and the audience, is invited in to Magda’s
apartment for the first time rather than looking from a telescope view. Within the apartment the
two essences, body and soul, which create a self are alone: one trying to seduce while the other
simply wishes to offer a gift of admiration.
Here, Tomek admits that he does not masturbate anymore to the sight of Magda walking around her apartment or having intercourse with her many male visitors. Tomek’s refusal to gain any physical pleasure from watching Magda is an action of the soul refusing to accept the actions of the body. Not only does he not masturbate, but he has interrupted the act of “love” in Magda’s apartment so as to keep his love and mental picture of Magda purely on a nonphysical or sexual level.
Tomek’s affection for Magda has already reached the 1-Thou relationship, finding himself above the It of masturbation. As assumed, Magda’s promiscuity fulfills the physical idea of love. It is important that the body is shown standing above and without a face in the frame in front of the sitting and nervous knowledge seeking soul. The scene suggests that the body is the stronger anonymous essence.
The only face shown is the uncomfortable look of Tomek being told to verbalize the physical actions of the older woman whilst also admitting his virginity. Tomek’s face is side lit, showing
his conflict at being presented with the opportunity to act on his bodily instincts and desires the
he had renounced earlier on in the film. The editing of close up, medium, and long shots alters
the perception of the film as the audience steps into different character’s shoes depending on
which shot (Sikov 10).
The room is a mix of black, red, white and grey. The dark room emphasizes the despair
of both characters who have closed themselves off to the other half of the self. Red drapes and
furniture symbolize the dangerous energy that is being presented through the mixing of two
loves. Tomek is wearing a white button up shirt, symbolizing his virginity, while Magda is
dressed in only a man’s grey button up, a colour that symbolizes maturity and sadness. These
colours mix together to provide a despairingly energetic atmosphere between the innocent soul
and mature body.
There is a faint diegetic sound in the background of their exchange of dialogue: the
pendulum of a clock keeping a steady two beat rhythm. When the film cuts to Tomek’s room
where his mother’s friend is watching through the window, a faster paced clock is ticking,
possibly representing the inevitable climax between the two characters.
Another interpretation is a symbol of the characters’ heart beat in the situation: the clock in Magda’s apartment is slow and steady to match her calmness; Tomek’s anxiety is represented through the quick ticking of his clock heard in his apartment across the complex. The clocks are sources of asynchronous sounds which “[refer] to those sounds that are heard without their sources being seen onscreen” (Sikov 79). These two clocks never overlap. The clock in Magda’s apartment ceases to be heard when Tomek feels Magda’s legs and orgasm, and does not reappear until Tomek has vacated the apartment out of embarrassment.
This lack of ticking suggests time standing still from the moment Magda first touches Tomek until he is out of her sight. This minute and a half of cinema is the turning point of Magda’s relationship with the I-It to I-Thou, as this encounter between the two characters put her into the “zone” of Thou. It is also the check point where Szapolowska realized Magda’s transformation as the events after the climax are altered to fit her demand of a happy ending.
In the low-key lit room, the audience witnesses the older woman who does not believe in
love push the virgin lad into performing a bodily action which goes against his ideal image of
love. The two are synthesized in Tomek as he feels up Magda’s thighs and orgasms in his pants
as the soul and body are thrust together by Magda; the result becomes a Tomek soon in despair
as he neither gained a love for the physical nor felt the same ideal love for her.
Tomek was unable to find solace in being one’s self and as a reaction to being forced into acting upon the disgusted part of himself, he sought out the pain of razor blades. Whether or not this action was to end his life or to find a new source of pain to override that of the humiliation in Magda’s apartment is left ambiguous by Kieslowski, who ends the film with Tomek asleep with a
transformed Magda, a body searching for her soul’s mate, looking through his telescope into her
The hurried ticking is heard again in this last scene, but it is drowned by soft nondiegetic
instrumental music. There is no dialogue between the female characters as they sit near Tomek’s
sleeping body. Magda’s attempt to touch Tomek’s scarred body, her soul mate, is deflected by
his caregiver. This is the same shot that had opened the film, foreshadowing the relationship to
be formed within Magda.
The room is dark save for desk lamp that illuminates the woman’s face and back lights Magda. Unable to physically touch Tomek, Magda seeks his presence through imagination. The music begins to play as Magda discovers the telescope covered by a red cloth, signaling the beginning of her fantasy sequence of witnessing through her window Tomek consoling her during a previous meltdown.
The audience knows that this is only her imagination because Magda, even though her face is near the telescope lens, has closed both of her eyes. The audience again becomes the voyeur as we are shown what the character, although this time a fantasy, perceives through the window. When imagined Tomek enters the apartment, Magda’s face is again hidden from the camera as she slowly reaches her hand to touch Tomek’s cheek.
The camera cuts back to Magda, whose eyes are open once more, and zooms in. When no other
features are in the shot, Magda closes her eyes, and the frame fades out. The motif of eyes in
film or literature symbolizes a gateway into a new world, most often the soul. Ending the film
with Magda’s eyes closed suggests that she will continue to stay in this Thou world and shun the
Alternative Strategies, the Buber hand out, speaks directly towards the notion of love and
feeling, where love is a Thou and feeling is an It. “Feelings accompany the metaphysical and
metapsychical fact of love, but they do not constitute it; and the feelings that accompany it can
be very different” (403). Buber expresses that feelings/Its are obtained and can be had while
love itself must be an encounter.
Love does not cling to an I, as if the You were merely its ‘content or object; it is between I and You. Whoever does not know this, know this with his being, does not know love, even if he should ascribe to it the feelings that he lives through, experiences, enjoys, and expresses (403, 404).
Magda, who is the body living in the It world, finds her relation to the Thou through her
encounter with Tomek. Her feelings of love, physical orgasms and experiences, are transformed
to Thou as love itself occurs when the clocks had stopped and she was in the zone, so to say.
The rest of the film is Magda encountering love with her being, “capable of what is immense and
bold enough to risk it: to love man” (404).
The significance of Magda’s closed eyes at the end of the film is her attempt to stay in the
Thou world before “the individual You must become an It when the event of relation has run its
course” (407). The Thou “is your present; you have a present only insofar as you have it; and
you can make it into an object for you and experience and use it – you must do that again and
again – and then you have no present anymore” (406). Buber questions whether one should
leave the It world seeing as one ultimately finds oneself without the Thou.
The You moments “may be seductive, but they pull us dangerously to extremes, loosening the well-tried structure, leaving behind more doubt than satisfaction, shaking up our security…” (407). These are the extremes that Magda encounters as she seeks out her soul mate, but must “beware of trying to transpose it into [her] soul – that way (she] destroy[s] it” (406). The film ends before Magda loses her Thou, resulting in the happy ending Szapolowska requested.
Kierkegaard’s idea of despair is experienced in this film as the unwillingness to be
oneself: “A despairing man wants despairingly to be himself… To be self as he wills to be would
be his delight…but be compelled to be self as he does not will to be is his torment…”
(Kierkegaard 84). Tomek’s refusal to take part in bodily actions, such as masturbating to the
sight and thought of Magda, is an unwillingness to be oneself. His choice to take a chance to
interact and love Magda in a bodily fashion is an action of despair as he attempts to embrace the
body, which is against the self he has been settled in for so long.
This is also reflected in Magda’s unwillingness to accept the idea of love that Tomek proposed to her before he, and the film, climax. She is in despair as she struggles to allow the soul and emotional part of love take over her and synthesize with the body. Magda’s transformation from the body/It relation to the Thou is a result of Tomek’s journey through despair.
It is the ambiguous razor blade scene that furthers the power of despair in Tomek. “To
despair over oneself, in despair to be rid of oneself, is the formula for all despair, and hence the
second form of despair (willing to be oneself) can be followed back to the first in despair at not
willing to be oneself)” (83, 84). His close call with death warrants the notion of “sickness unto
death” (81). One way to interpret Tomek’s mutilation is to deduce it as an act to experience a
worse pain than that of his tarnished love. Left unconscious at the end of the film, the viewers
do not get confirmation that his despair had led him to an attempted suicide.
If so, there is the possibility that Tomek has reached “the torment of despair…not to be able to die” (82), and must live on in Magda’s fantasy. “…when the danger is so great that death has become one’s hope, despair is the disconsolateness of not being able to die” (82). Even if the suicide attempt had prevailed, Tomek would have been subjected to the Christian understanding of death
transitioning into a new life, one found in the conscience of Magda’s imagination (81).
McClelland’s essay agrees that films can “be” philosophical contributions as the fictional
narratives sometimes find themselves to be “something deeply Socratic…without stating any
philosophical conclusions, one can cleverly stimulate an audience into achieving their own
insights” (20). An insight to Keislowski’s film is the emotional and physical hurt that comes
from the idea or physical acts of love that are presented in narrative through Tomek and Magda.
The outcome of the climactic scene is without dialogue as Tomek searches for a greater physical
pain to overcome the emotional trauma he received from Magda, a cinematic film moment that
could not be established as strongly on paper or through a lecture. There is no philosophical
generality spoken between the characters in the film, but I am able to apply my own insights on the director’s project towards love: that it hurts one physically while the other is able to find
relation to a new world of Thouness. Love leaves no self unharmed physically, emotionally, or
without a new relation with an encounter.
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