A Short Film About Love (1988)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 30min

Much like Dekalog: Five, the sixth episode of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Ten Commandments-inspired series was expanded into a feature film, giving us A Short Film About Love. The Hitchcockian setup is very familiar – a man with a telescope spying from their apartment into a neighbour’s unit, developing an unhealthy obsession with their life – and yet in place of a suspenseful mystery leading our young voyeur along, Kieslowski instead absorbs us in a compelling morality play. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is the commandment upon which this instalment is based, though by the end it is evident that his sights are set on the more intricate distinction between sex and love, and the complete denial of the latter.

Before nineteen-year-old Tomek has even spoken to the much-older Magda, he already has a good idea of her life and routine. A series of men come in and out of her apartment looking for sex, and though he admits he used to pleasure himself to the sight, recently he has chosen to turn away. Perhaps he considers this a form of respect or even love, but his stalking continues to take on other forms of harassment – calling her phone without speaking, sending fake postal notices so she visits his workplace, and taking on a job as milkman as an excuse to go to her apartment.

Magda’s face caught in the glass at Tomek’s work, hanging over him like a spectre.

Inside, her unit is shrouded in deep reds, from the hanging artworks and stained windows to the bed sheets and telephone. It isn’t just eye-catching, but entirely beguiling and seductive, capturing the mind and heart of this young man whose experience of the world has largely been confined to this cold, blue corner of Warsaw. As Tomek finds himself being drawn into her burning red orbit, Kieslowski remains composed in his development of both characters, meticulously revealing two opposed yet equally twisted perceptions of love.

A commitment to red decor all through Magda’s apartment, setting her apart from the rest of Tomek’s cold, drab world.

When the two finally converge in that beautiful scarlet room, Kieslowski puts these two ideologies head-to-head – the romanticisation of one-sided affection, and the denial that there is no such thing as love, but only sex. That Magda chooses to engage with Tomek at all after discovering his secret is not just a surprise to us, but to Tomek himself, who completely freezes up after being confronted with a woman significantly more experienced and confident than himself. His fantasy of admiring one from afar cannot stand actual reciprocation, and when he finally experiences an orgasm, she simply leaves him with a crushingly cold statement.

“Love… that’s all it is.”

With that pivotal meeting, Kieslowski begins to set in motion an inversion between both parties. As a devastated Tomek goes home and slits his wrists in a tub, he is now the one surrounded by the red of Magda’s world, with clouds of blood floating through the water. Meanwhile, she finds herself plagued by the guilt of what she has done, and from afar begins to develop her own sort of affection for him. It may not be sexual or romantic, but it is a moving, profound compassion comparable to that of a maternal figure or perhaps a friend, filled with genuine care and a heavy dose of shame.

The red from Magda’s world finding its way into Tomek’s in a violent, bloody narrative turn.

Now in Tomek’s place, longing after another from afar, she visits his apartment. Just as he entered her world and understood her better, now she is entering his to look through his eyes, and in turning both journeys into mirrors of each other Kieslowski finds remarkable narrative form. Through his telescope, she imagines what he might have seen, most significantly the sadness and pain that few others have recognised in her. And then, fully submitting to the fantasy of her love, she envisions him there as well, comforting her at her lowest, and bringing A Short Film About Love to its poignant, hopeful end.

A Short Film About Love is currently streaming on Mubi and The Criterion Channel.

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