The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

Peter Greenaway | 2hr 4min

In a dystopian society where citizens are little more than consumers and intellectualism has long gone out of fashion, those who control the distribution of food hold ultimate power. The symbolic parallels Peter Greenaway draws to Margaret Thatcher’s own political reign are thoughtfully painted out within such an elaborately garish setting as this, whereby one restaurant becomes Britain and its obscene, abusive owner is its Prime Minister. He lords over his customers like a tyrant, rubbing their faces in their meals and bullying his subordinates, though perhaps the most disillusioned of them all is his own wife, whose eyes have started turning towards a far more sensitive figure in the dining hall she visits every night with her loathsome husband.

Narratively, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a tightly plotted political allegory in the vein of George Orwell, rendering its complex characters as the archetypes written out in its title and subjugating them to strict, arbitrary power structures. Visually, it is operating on another transcendent level altogether, marking some of the most triumphantly stunning displays of mise-en-scène ever put to film in its ornately curated interiors conforming to a unified Baroque aesthetic. This style is not surprising given Greenaway’s background as a painter, his specific adoration for 15th to 17th century art, and the technical virtuosity of his previous films. Still, there is something particularly tactile about The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover in its evocative staging and camerawork, both maintaining a strong sense of screen direction in the consistent horizontal movements through a restaurant laid out like a gallery where each room is its own striking exhibit. Together, these tableaux effectively form one large Wes Anderson-style diorama, with his rigid parallel tracking shots emphasising the skilful layering of every shot into individual planes moving at independent speeds across the screen like paintings vividly rendered in three-dimensional space, and smoothly transitioning between rooms divided by the black strips of negative space between.

This lays genuine claim to being one of the most beautiful films in history with its meticulous compositions of vibrant colours, and this combined with the formal precision of Greenaway’s parallel tracking shots make for something visually transcendent.

On the far left of this elongated structure is the alleyway leading into its back entrance, lit with neon blue lights revealing a clearly artificial soundstage around the edifice. With such vibrantly expressionistic colours bleeding through the scenery, there is an evident Giallo influence announcing itself here, suggesting a tinge of gaudy horror reminiscent of Suspiria. As the opening scene sees trucks pull up in symmetrical formation to reveal the meat hanging inside though and as gangster Albert Spica makes his grand entrance stripping a man naked and smearing him with dog poo, there is no doubt that this is a Greenaway film, its imagery simultaneously repulsing and enticing its audience with a dangerously handsome allure. Out in these dark exteriors, dogs hungrily feast on the restaurant’s wasted meat like peasants who can’t earn a seat at a table, and Michael Nyman’s score hits sharp, staccato accents on orchestral strings as a Baroque prelude to Greenaway’s cinematic opus.

Clear artifice in Greenaway’s staging and production design, calling back to A Zed and Two Noughts with the emphasis on the giant letters, and carrying on with his trademark symmetry. Out in this exterior alleyway, his vivid neon lighting is distinctly expressionistic.

To the right of the blue-lit alleyway is the kitchen defined by the unnatural green hues shed across its brick walls, pantry, and bench tops, upon which Greenaway’s mess of half-prepared meals, sharp utensils, and carved meats spread out in meticulous arrangements. In long shots he catches two colossal, triangular vents hanging symmetrically above the room as silhouettes, and below the space is filled in with an eclectic range of characters bustling through pulsing lights and plumes of smoke, bringing the room to life through their own bizarre contributions. Working at one benchtop is a short, dumpy cook wearing nothing but white briefs, and underscoring the kitchen’s intricate commotion is a young boy soprano singing a hymnal miserere pulled directly from the Book of Psalms, praying for a spiritual cleansing.

“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity.”

Green lighting spread through the kitchen, cluttered with people and decor. The Wes Anderson influence is immense in these dioramas emphasising specifically themed props.

This also winds up being a key location for Spica’s wife, Georgina, and her newfound lover, Michael, who seek refuge in the claustrophobic pantry to carry out their affair under the protection of the kitchen staff. The sweet refuge they find in each other’s arms is still not entirely secure here though, as even when Spica isn’t trying to sniff them out, Greenaway intercuts their sexual tryst with sharp knives chopping up meats and vegetables, tersely illustrating the kitchen as a dangerous place for any sort of forbidden love given the uncertain loyalty of the gangster’s underlings.

Perhaps it is in the dining hall most of all where Greenaway draws his hardest barrier between the audience and his actors, setting up Spica, Georgina, and the henchmen along a table separating them from the camera. This deep red chamber of unruly patrons may be the singularly most picturesque of all the rooms in this establishment, setting up wildly cluttered tableaux of crudely mannered dinner guests illustrated in stark contrast to the large, Flemish Baroque painting that hangs in the background, The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1616, depicting 17th century Dutch gentry civilly congregating around a feast. It is through a remarkable depth of field that Greenaway is able to capture this gorgeous artwork in great detail as a complement to the drama that unfolds in front of it, and it similarly serves his staging well in catching Georgina and Michael’s silent glances across the room, while Spica’s obnoxious rambling keeps rattling over the top. Around them, Greenaway’s striking crimson hues saturate the carpet, chairs, wine, roses, and velvet curtains in expressionistic patterns, bleeding with passionate lust and violence as the mobster relentlessly bullies anyone who crosses his path, and even those who don’t.

Greenaway indulging in his love for Flemish Baroque painting, hanging this giant artwork up on the wall behind Spica’s table as a historical comparison of civility and culture.
Like Stanley Kubrick in Barry Lyndon, Greenaway uses his staging, colours, lighting, and textures to imitate oil paintings.
Deep focus and burning red colours beautifully weaved through costumes and sets, setting up a dangerous environment in the dining hall.

If the external alleyway in all its dark, chaotic designs represents human’s unhindered brutality, then this entire restaurant could very well represent a spectrum of civility, progressing through the anarchic kitchen, the sophisticated but busy dining hall, and finally arriving at the minimalistic, pure white bathroom on the far right. This is the site of Georgina and Michael’s very first rendezvous away from prying eyes, cleanly set up as a spotless paradise that might almost be a reprieve from the intense colours found elsewhere were it not for the shimmer of angry red light shining in from the dining room whenever the door is thrown open, reminding us of the danger lurking on the other side. Still, for the short time that it stands as a sanctuary from Spica’s ferocity, Nyman’s score shifts away from the harsh Baroque orchestra and operatic soprano associated with other rooms to gently bask in a romantic chamber piece of strings and piano.

Pure white in the bathroom, a clean, spotless paradise where characters pursue privacy as refuge.
But also notice the changing outfits between rooms, matching the colour palettes of their environments – Gaultier’s elegant costume design is as much a part of Greenaway’s formal vision as anything else.

Such extraordinary dedication to these thoroughly curated palettes goes far beyond Greenaway’s décor though, as even the colours of his characters’ costumes subtly alter from room to room to match whatever dominant scheme is expressed through the production design. It is a smart choice to recruit renowned fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier in this department, as even his most famous collaborations with significant stylistic directors such as Pedro Almodóvar and Jean-Pierre Jeunet can’t top the own sartorial elegance on display here, gracefully blending these wealthy characters in with their lush environments.

It should be no surprise that Greenaway goes on to carry out this exacting formal perfectionism through virtually element of his film’s construction. Much like his zoological studies in A Zed and Two Noughts, he comes at the culinary arts with a taxonomical precision, structuring his narrative through the seven different menus assigned to each day of the week, each one framed with detailed compositions of the meals they describe. Standing in direct opposition to such refined culture we find Spica and his boorish affronts, as while his staff and patrons celebrate and partake in elaborate servings of food, he denigrates it all as nothing but the foul end result it becomes after being thoroughly digested.

“How do I care what he ate? It all comes out as shit in the end.”

Menus used as formal markers, cleverly keeping with the food motif to divide the narrative up into separate days.
Red Giallo lighting in the dining hall casting an infernal glow over Spica’s ruthless bullying of his customers.

And yet for all his lack of taste, Spica might just be the most ravenous of them all. Michael Gambon dominates the screen in this role, putting forward a truly monstrous performance while leaving himself barely a second to breathe between lines. Over the course of the week of this narrative, he crudely eats his way through the restaurant as if driven by an endless hunger, all while his resume of violent atrocities keep stacking up with numerous physical abuses exacted upon customers, the hospitalisation of a young boy, and the chilling rape of his own wife. “I’m her husband, not her lover,” he coldly proclaims, separating the two roles into distinct categories and consequently asserting his total domination. There is no doubt about where he sits in the hierarchy of this restaurant, nor his political equivalences given that the only topic he seems well-versed on is the favourite dishes of historical figures such as Hitler, Mussolini, and Churchill – though even then there is some doubt as to whether he is simply making it up as he goes.

As Spica grows more violent, his restaurant becomes emptier and darker, leaving him lonelier than ever in this gorgeous wide shot.

Spica’s anti-intellectualism manifests most of all in his interactions with Michael, who works in a book depository and spends his dinner times perusing novels. “I reckon you read because you got no one to talk to,” the gangster mocks, though upon discovering the affair between his victim and Georgina, his anger unleashes in its full, violent force.

“I’ll kill him, and I’ll eat him!”

Michael Gambon’s vicious, verbal performance belongs among the best of the year and his career, carrying the film through on a forceful wave of wrath and gluttony.

Up to this point Spica has been simultaneously degrading the value of academia and turning food into a weapon he can wield against powerless victims, and with his gruesome vengeance wreaked upon Michael, both effectively culminate in a twisted execution, force feeding the lover pages from his own books until he dies. Greenaway’s indulgences in such macabre murders as this are Hitchcockian in their extravagance, exploring those perverted minds which commit heinous acts and carry little fear of consequences, though of course it would not earn this comparison if there were not at least a tinge of dark humour present. “The French Revolution was easier to swallow than Napoleon,” Spica jokes right after Greenaway notes that the final page stuffed into the lover’s mouth was indeed a chapter on the French Revolution.

Dark irony in Greenaway’s creative murders, killing the bookseller by force feeding him his own books – including a page appropriately titled The French Revolution. Savage political commentary in both direction and writing.

Therein lies the ironic inspiration for Georgina’s own simmering plans of insurrection. Helen Mirren is not as loud as Gambon in this role, but she simmers with complex insecurities, misgivings, and dreams, coming together with Alan Howard’s Michael to represent those educated individuals disenfranchised by Thatcher’s unrefined libertarian ideologies. As Georgina lays next to the lover’s dead body and falls asleep, Greenaway pays Mirren one of the few close-ups of the film, absorbed in her quiet monologue pondering the trauma she has suffered and the delectable food she will eat in the morning, each one a tiny rebellion against her husband’s vulgar dismissal of fine cuisine.

“Coffee and fresh rolls and butter… and marmalade. And… toast.”

The book depository becomes its own sanctuary for the wife and the lover, and also hosts Mirren’s quiet, sensitive monologue in an affecting close-up.

Evidently, food is always on the minds of Greenaway’s characters, and how they treat it says a lot about them as people, and so it is with this ideal that The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, arrives at a denouement even more nauseatingly poetic than Michael’s murder by books. The toppling of Spica as the man at the top of the food chain is not enacted by Georgina alone, but through the collective action of all those he has wronged, with the kitchen staff seizing back the culinary arts as a weapon controlled by the people, not the wealthy. Leading a procession of Spica’s own restaurant staff like a funeral, Georgina serves up a new kind of meal to her husband at gunpoint – Michael’s naked body, served upon a fresh bed of potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, and lemon slices, steaming hot and drenched in a disgustingly warm glaze.

“Try the cock, Albert. It’s a delicacy. And you know where it’s been.”

A symmetrical, funeral-like procession emblematic of this revolution of workers.
Sickening, macabre imagery gorging Spica on his own conquest, bringing him to the physical manifestation of his greed and gluttony.

For the first time, it seems that Spica has had his fill, unable to eat the meal presented to him or accept the physical manifestation of his own voracious desires. The red lights of the dining hall shining on his horrified face no longer look lustful or violent, but as his shakily brings a forkful of human flesh to his mouth, it instead appears entirely demonic, accompanying his psychological torture with an infernal hellish glow. And then at his lowest point, right after the gangster has consumed the sickening product of his victory, Greenaway succinctly ties The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover off with the ultimate indictment of an authoritarian who has finally gorged themselves on their own gluttonous conquest, branding both Spica and Thatcher with a single condemnation that would haunt any political figure forever.

“Cannibal.”

Symmetry thrown off balance by Spica’s dead body, staging his complete defeat beneath the towering crowd of mutineers led by his wife.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is not currently streaming in Australia.

Dekalog (1989)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 10 episodes (53 – 58min)

Dekalog: OneDekalog: TwoDekalog: ThreeDekalog: FourDekalog: Five
Dekalog: SixDekalog: SevenDekalog; EightDekalog: NineDekalog: Ten

Inside the high-rise Warsaw apartment building of the Dekalog, there lives an entire community of strangers and sinners. They may not all know each other’s names or understand troubles beyond their own, but every day they pass by each other in the foyer, lift, and street, nodding politely and exchanging a few words before moving on. The perspective that Krzysztof Kieslowski grants us into their lives in his anthology film series is omniscient. Behind each door in this towering complex is a new morality tale with some basis in the Ten Commandments, though the didacticism is rarely so blunt as those single-line imperatives.

Theological Renaissance art is his inspiration, and with that in mind he goes about creating a cinematic equivalent to a series of paintings depicting the commandments, though with a distinctly more modern, ambiguous flavour. Just as significant as the maintenance of these commandments is the difficulty of upholding them with complicated contemporary pressures. The history, culture, law, relationships, and technology of late-Communist Poland manifest in unexpected ways, and at the centre of them all is that giant, concrete piece of architecture, making a statement of both insulated loneliness and hidden interconnectedness.

A giant, austere housing project as common location across the episodes, an apt representation of interconnected neighbours living private, sinful lives.

With this apartment building acting as a common setting for the entire series, Kieslowski goes about using an array of different cinematographers to imbue each episode with a distinct style, emphasising the individuality of each perspective they bring. The effect is powerful, if a little inconsistent – some dialogue-heavy episodes do not feature the same cinematic bravado as the more aesthetically defined instalments, but there still always remains a steady awareness of how they all fit together. Though Dekalog: One and Three are both set in the freezing winter, the latter has a distinctly more festive tone in the red lighting and mise-en-scène, and Dekalog: Five acts as a visual highlight of the series in its jaundiced, sickly colouring, turning Warsaw into a rotten wasteland.

Entirely distinct visions of Warsaw, Poland through different episodes, each one offering a separate artistic perspective to suit its commandment.

In spite of these stylistic differences, there is a formal consistency in the specific motifs and themes which emerge across their studies of moral duty, faith, and parenthood. The family unit is an especially important foundation for Kieslowski’s moral tales, as mothers and fathers constantly fumble in their attempts to raise their children. Milk acts as a symbol of nourishing life here, suggesting the ways in which motherhood and innocence might play into these situations whether as an attempt to breastfeed a baby or a carton that has gone sour. Where parents aren’t making mistakes, they are often entirely absent, leaving behind spiritual holes begging to be filled in by God the Father and the Mother Mary. Dekalog: One does well to set this up with a hopeful depiction of Our Lady of Częstochowa in its conclusion, and it is similarly tied up in the final episode where two brothers are led down the road of Cain and Abel without the guidance of their now-deceased father.

Mothers and fathers often act as a foundation of Kieslowski’s moral tales, whether they are flawed humans, venerated religious icons, or absent figures.

Perhaps the most potent recurring motif though as that of the mysterious, silent spectator played by Artur Barciś in eight of the ten episodes. He never speaks, but he is often present at key moments where major decisions must be made. Though he often goes unnoticed, every so often he catches the eye of a character who finds themselves inexplicably disturbed or haunted by his presence, whether he is appearing as a tram driver, a university student, or a homeless man. He is not a force of good or evil, but much like us, he hangs over this series as an omniscient figure, seeing into the souls of these characters but never intervening. For all its grounding in the authentic history and culture of 1980s Poland, the Dekalog remains a mystical piece of theological cinema, holding us back from accepting any individual narrative as the singular truth by instead delivering a more transcendent perspective akin to that of an all-seeing deity.

Artur Barciś as the silent witness in eight of the ten episodes. Is he an angel, demon, or simply an audience surrogate, pushing in on these stories with his omniscient, unwavering gaze?

Dekalog: One – “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”

There are a series of bizarre, almost supernatural occurrences that presage the devastating blow which Dekalog: One delivers in its final act, but atheistic professor Krzysztof is not one to consider the meaning of clues or symbols beyond those which scientific studies tell him. His son, Paweł, possesses a similar curiosity about the world, though he is often only left confused when his father and his devout aunt, Irena, offer two separate paths to find the answers he seeks.

Kieslowski is heavily symbolic in his imagery, most evidently in his portrayal of Krzysztof’s computer as an ethereal, holy force. It illuminates Krzysztof and Paweł’s apartment with a dim, green glow, and although it represents the rigid rules of science, there is still a mystical sentience to its actions, seemingly turning on of its own accord and mysteriously telling them “I am ready.”

Krzysztof’s downfall comes not from using its calculations, but rather placing so much faith in them that he rejects all other signs which contradict them. When a bottle of blue ink topples over without reason and spreads across his paper like an ominous, expanding lake, he brushes it off. Neither do the sirens outside alert him to anything wrong, or the talk of a local child going missing. Gradually, anxiety sets in, and he finally reaches a reckoning with his faithlessness when his worst fears are confirmed by his own two eyes.

Running from the green glow of the computer and the icy blue lake where his nightmares have manifested, an empty church offers itself for his outpouring of anger and grief. The venerated icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa that stands up on the altar acts as somewhat of a substitute for the absence of a mother figure elsewhere in this episode, and as he topples tables and candles, she remains standing straight, bearing the brunt of his grief with only a few drops of wax trickling down her face like tears. Dekalog: One is particularly didactic in its narrative, and yet Kieslowski’s beautifully spiritual metaphors imbues it with a remarkable visual power that underscores the crisis of faith at its centre.

Dekalog: Two – “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

In a hospital room where water drips down cracked and peeling walls, a man’s life hangs in the balance. The sound design might reminisce Tarkovsky in the ever-present trickling, but the abstract cutaways are truly Kieslowski, using micro representations of humanity to bring spiritual stakes to Andrzej’s survival. Later in this episode we will watch a bee crawl up out of a glass of preserved strawberries, offering him a hopeful symbol of rebirth as he returns from the “beyond”, but until then, it is a journey of frightening uncertainty.

For Andrzej’s wife, Dorota, his survival will determine the fate of her unborn baby. Should he live, then she will choose to abort it as it belongs to another man; if he dies, then she will become the mother she always wanted to be. It is a torturous situation she finds herself in, and in small outbursts she acts out, snapping the leaves of a houseplant and pushing a glass off a table just so she can assert some kind of agency. In her mind, the major decision regarding her pregnancy is beyond her control given its dependency on Andrzej’s survival, and so as if to place it in the hands of the doctor, she demands a prognosis.

It is here that the second commandment manifests in an understated manner, in which the doctor falsely swears an oath that Andrzej is almost completely likely to die. In contrast to his first episode, Kieslowski allows a little more of an understanding into the mind of the primary ‘sinner’, and as such Dekalog: Two takes a slightly more nuanced position in understanding how the modern age continues to complicate these ancient laws.

Dekalog: Three – “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.”

At first, it does not seem like Dekalog: Three carries the same life or death stakes as the previous two episodes. Its narrative is far more subdued, involving us in two ex-lovers’ search for a missing husband on Christmas Eve, though at the same time Kieslowski steps up his visuals in this instalment, using cinematographer Piotr Sobociński to illuminate these icy Polish streets with the red glow of festive lights. Much of the time they appear as pinpoints adorning scraggly Christmas trees, piercing through beautifully austere aerial shots, though every so often Kieslowski will also bounce them off reflective surfaces or illuminate faces in close-ups, making for a beautiful reminder of the religious holiday that the episode takes place over.

It is this Christmas setting that is absolutely integral to Kieslowski’s figurative reading of the commandment his episode is based on. Here, the Sabbath represents any holy day one sets aside to reflect on their own faith and spend time with loved ones, and initially taxi driver Janusz appears to recognise the significance of this in taking time off work. It is when he attends midnight Mass and runs into Ewa, a woman from his past, that he becomes distracted, and the two embark on an Odyssey-like journey to find her husband who has mysteriously disappeared.

On their journey, they encounter a series of minor characters still working on this sacred night, unable to take time off due to the necessity of their jobs, and this pattern subtly underscores Janusz and Ewa’s own fickle distractions. A late-game revelation turns their entire quest on its head as a heavy fog of death and depression gathers over it, but much like other Dekalog episodes, there is also a counterpoint of hope and redemption to tie it off. Though directly contravening the third commandment and abandoning his spiritual duties, surely there is some salvation for Janusz in helping Ewa fulfil her own?

Dekalog: Four – “Honour thy father and thy mother.”

Even considering the moral complexities that have arisen elsewhere in the Dekalog, the fourth episode breaches thornier territory than ever in its study of a Freudian relationship between a father and daughter. Just as there is an absence felt by a deceased mother in the family dynamic of Dekalog: One, Kieslowski again leaves an empty space here with a letter from Michal’s wife, who passed away a few days after the birth of her daughter, Anka. It is only meant to be read after Michal has passed too, but impatient to hear her mother’s words, she opens it prematurely, and suddenly both parent and child find their relationship tested in the most uncomfortable manner.

As the two discuss the possibility that they may not be related, Kieslowski sends them in an elevator right to the bottom of their apartment building, where two candles burn in the darkness like a small chapel. From this point on, Kieslowski’s lighting grows darker, starkly illuminating their apartment with lamps that cast bright beams and shadows across their faces in the midst of arguments and heartfelt pleas. Elsewhere in the unit, a smashed glass door that Michal kicked earlier out of anger sits un-mended, their interior world collapsing around them.

As sinful as his characters are, Kieslowski never condemns them with righteous retribution, but rather takes the time to understand how their flaws are integral parts of their messy humanity. Perhaps our understanding of Anka early on as a drama student with a deep interest in drawing out hidden truths from lies should clue us into her own propensity for falsehoods, but even when this is revealed we don’t find ourselves mad at her. Instead, all we see is a father and daughter trying to figure themselves out, eventually choosing to preserve their own innocent relationship over any secrets that could potentially destroy it.

Dekalog: Five – “Thou shalt not murder.”

When Kieslowski created his Dekalog series with the intention of making ten one-hour episodes, he was pushed by TV Poland to expand two into full-length feature films. Dekalog: Five thus became A Short Film About Killing, as well as the strongest instalment in the series, disturbing our senses in both style and narrative while taking on the Fifth Commandment as its focus.

Read my full review for the theatrical cut of this episode here.

Dekalog: Six – “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

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.

Beyond the fact that both Dekalog: Five and Six were extended into full films, they also make fascinating companion pieces for the formal structuring of their narratives, both being marked by a midpoint turn that instigates a total role reversal for a main character in the final minutes.

Read my full review for the theatrical cut of this episode here.

Dekalog: Seven – “Thou shalt not steal.”

As Kieslowski’s camera descends the side of the Warsaw apartment building in the opening shot of Dekalog: Seven, the sound of a child’s screams can be heard coming from one of its units. Ania, the young girl to whom they belong, clearly has issues of her own, but considerations of what might be best for her are not the concerns of the adults in this story. Her mother, Majka, gave birth to her six years ago while at school, but to protect her from the scandal, her own mother, Ewa, put forward a lie that the two were sisters. Now 22-years-old, Majka resolves they are all old enough for the truth to come out, and goes about kidnapping her daughter to meet her real father, Wotjek.

Kieslowki’s understanding of stealing as a sin within this screenplay is fascinating in its complexity. Perhaps what Ewa did was wrong, exerting her possessiveness over something that was not rightfully hers, and yet at the same time it is evident that Majka is not yet matured to properly care for Ania either. There is a fairy tale quality to the kidnapping that seems to pull the two into a delusional, naïve mindset, as mother and daughter escape into woods where a carousel seems to spring forth from overgrown weeds, and later meet up with Wotjek, who now lives in a small house making teddy bears.

It is in his residence where Majka, desperately trying to recreate the family that should have been, begs for her daughter to call her “Mother”, and yet it is simply too much for Ania to grasp. When Ania’s night terrors emerge again, Majka goes about trying to prove that she does have the capability to quell them as well as Ewa, and yet just like her own mother, it is merely an act of selfish reassurance. Whether one can steal something that belongs to them might be a big question here, and yet Kieslowski also uses Dekalog: Seven to consider the rights of those affected beyond the binary “thief and victim” narrative.

Dekalog: Eight – “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”

Poland’s history feels more immediate here in Dekalog: Eight than in any other instalment of Kieslowski’s series, as the sin in question is one that took place several decades ago during Germany’s occupation of Warsaw. Zofia is a professor of ethics and may in theory be considered the most prepared of any character we have met so far to face questions of integrity, and yet when Elżbieta, a visiting translator, drops in on one of her lectures, a past between them comes to light which begins to wear away at her professional demeanour. In 1943, Elżbieta was a 6-year-old Jewish girl seeking out sanctuary with Zofia’s Catholic family who were also part of the resistance, though after hearing rumours that Elżbieta’s parents were in fact working for the Gestapo, they turned her away.

From God’s eighth commandment, Kieslowski chooses to take the emphasis off “false witness” and place it on “neighbour”, examining the duty of each Christian to not just be honest with friends and strangers, but to accept them as good, honest people as well. Visually, he weaves in shades of green into his mise-en-scène as well, lending an air of natural grace to Zofia’s exercise in the park, and underscoring the two women’s conversation with a merciful renewal in their costuming and the professor’s car. As complicated as their past is together, their efforts to communicate effectively bridge that divide keeping them apart.

In Dekalog: Eight’s understanding of communities as a network of neighbours obligated to help and understand each other, Kieslowski begins to condense broader ideas floating around this series into a cohesive conclusion. The moral dilemma of the doctor and the pregnant woman from episode 2 comes up as a topic in Zofia’s ethics class, and later she acknowledges that they live in the same building as her, where all these stories are set. “Warsaw is a small place,” she states, highlighting the closeness of each life to the others that surround it. When she visits another apartment block, the begrudging man who answers the doors claims that none of his neighbours get along with each other, and while the characters living in Zofia’s complex usually only meet each other tangentially, we still see within this woman an active interest in learning about those around her.

Dekalog: Nine – “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife.”

The main character in Dekalog: Nine is not the transgressor of its primary commandment, and yet the jealousy it implies still weighs heavy in his heart. With the extra emphasis on intimate relations, Kieslowski appropriately makes the most of the apartment block’s architecture and interiors to set scenes of domesticity, shooting his characters through cracks in doorways and reflected in mirrors to both divide and unite them. It also contains some of the strongest images from the series as a whole, in one shot towards the start catching their silhouettes through the building’s glass door against a rainy, blue exterior, coldly isolating them on the border of private and public worlds.

Even in the tight, dark elevator on their way up to their unit, Kieslowski continues to visually separate them with passing lights alternating between their faces, only ever allowing us to see one at a time. A disconnected dynamic is set right away, laying the groundwork for a relationship determined to disintegrate following Roman’s diagnosis of impotence and Hanka’s duplicitous affair. That he has given her permission to cheat on him is negligible – the deception hurts all the same, threatening their marital vow that every intimate part of their lives will be shared together.

By no means is Roman innocent in this situation either. We spend a good deal of time following his sneaking and spying which he also takes some shameful, voyeuristic pleasure from, being unable to perform sexually in the same way as his wife’s lover. With a complex, distant relationship at its core, Dekalog: Nine’s narrative is ripe for superbly staged scenes of tension and conflict, studying the coveting of two men from either side of an extra-marital affair.

Dekalog: Ten – “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods.”

Kieslowski ends his series of contemporary moral fables not with tragedy, but rather with what might almost be considered a dramatic comedy, using Dekalog: Ten to examine the hold of greed over the minds of a pair of brothers. The two couldn’t be more different – where strait-laced businessman Jerzy is strictly no-nonsense, Artur is introduced leading his punk band City Death at a riotous concert, shouting lyrics that are amusingly irreverent and referential to the rest of the series.

“Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill and steal! Commit adultery and covet a whole week long!”

As dissimilar as the brothers may be, having parted ways with each other and their estranged father years ago, they are affected all the same by the discovery of his valuable stamp collection, making them instant millionaires. They also quickly realise that there are men out there with their eyes set on their inheritance, and so the two go about building an intense security system around the apartment. In order to complete a collection of three rare stamps, Jerzy even goes so far as to sell his kidney for the missing piece, quite literally cutting off a piece of his humanity and replacing it with the object of his obsession.

Much like Cain and Abel before them, Jerzy and Artur begin to turn against each other in paranoia, withdrawing from the rekindled connection sparked by their father’s death. Kieslowski does not wish to end the Dekalog with the same disastrous fate that befell those Biblical brothers though. He is an optimist at heart, believing in the potential of humans to reconcile and become better people even if those around them do not. Upon realising that they have simply fallen victim to the crimes of other covetous men, all they can do is laugh at the joyous absurdity of it all – the fruitless sins of humanity, the insignificance of stamps, and the unexpected delight of finding each other again in the midst of it all.

Dekalog is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Spike Lee | 2hr

On a sweltering summer day in a tight-knight Brooklyn community, tensions are brewing. A small argument erupts between pizza deliverer Mookie and his girlfriend, Tina. Police patrol cars coast slowly down the main road, suspiciously eyeing off a Greek chorus of middle-aged men who casually philosophise about the world around them. Mookie’s verbose friend, Buggin’ Out, takes issue with the Italian-focused ‘Wall of Fame’ at the local pizzeria for its lack of African-American representation. Many of the conflicts we witness spark into embers, but are quickly doused by diplomacy or mutually silent disdain. But by the end of the one day which much of Do the Right Thing takes place over, some of these fires will spread through the community, continuing to escalate with neither side backing down. It certainly doesn’t help that this is the hottest day of the year, as almost every character present in Spike Lee’s ensemble seeks out shade or water to escape the burning sun. And with Lee himself stoking the flames in his frenzied cinematography and intensely warm colours, an all-consuming, fiery conclusion only seems inevitable.

Spike Lee’s dazzling colours and warm lighting bring a humid heat wave to this Brooklyn neighbourhood.

Though controversy that has frequently accompanied Lee’s public appearances and films over the past thirty years, there is little that has topped the controversy that was ignited by Do the Right Thing upon its release at Cannes Film Festival in 1989. It is important to recognise though that his major breakthrough is as brazenly artistic as it is political, confidently wading into the murky waters of morality to pick apart the frustratingly tricky details of what “the right thing” actually is when it comes to addressing the horrific injustices perpetuated by the police on Black citizens.

For a film that deals with such complex issues as these, Do the Right Thing is surprisingly unafraid of indulging in humour. In fact, one might compare its first two acts to a Shakespearean comedy, complete with an ensemble of vibrant characters who trade barbs, play with contemporary slang, and deliver off-the-cuff soliloquys, with each one taking ownership of their role and status in this community.

A diverse group of characters populate this film, many of whom remain siloed off in their corners of the neighbourhood until a third act collision.

Da Mayor, the cheery town drunk, is wiser than he appears, and gradually works his way into the heart of Mother Sister, a peevish woman who watches the world go by from her apartment window. Sal, the owner of the local pizzeria, is one of the few white men living in this predominantly Black suburb, but carries out his work with pride even as he mediates tensions between his bigoted sons and clientele. The mentally disabled Smiley walks around town selling pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Radio Raheem carries a portable radio blasting “Fight the Power” wherever he goes, local DJ Señor Love Daddy is our narrator providing a running commentary from his broadcast studio – this community is alive and breathing, and Lee doesn’t hold back in his unabashed visual experimentations that turn even ordinary brownstone apartments into bright red architectural expressions of urban living.

At times, long tracking shots move between close-ups and wide shots of city streets, keeping an energetic momentum in the movement of Lee’s camera, but then just as we feel we have tuned into this pacing, we jump into montages and conversations made up of harsh cuts between canted angles coming from every direction. Even on the rare occasion that the camera is completely static for long stretches, there is always movement in the shot, whether it is the rotating shadow cast by a ceiling fan over an intimate encounter between Mookie and Tina, or character interactions spread across layers of the frame, with each of these boldly creative decisions bringing a restless joy to the mundanity of everyday living.

This is one of the first movies you would have to mention when talking about the expert use of canted angles in cinema history.

And yet when all is said and done, Do the Right Thing is not a comedy. It is the tension between its dualities of drama and humour, fire and water, and right and wrong where Lee’s central thesis emerges, and which is most accurately captured in Radio Raheem’s “right hand/left hand” monologue. His speech isn’t the first direct address to camera we have seen in this film, but here Lee demolishes the barrier between passive spectator and participant in swinging his camera round from a third-person to Mookie’s first-person perspective, then takes the time to let Raheem deliver his allegory of the battle between love and hate, where love ultimately wins out. If each of the characters in Do the Right Thing are grounded in some sort of fictional archetype, then Raheem is a vessel of innocence who believes that such clean dichotomies can be upheld with a clear victory of good over evil.

But such easy definitions and clear-cut conflicts have no place in the reality of this Brooklyn neighbourhood. Though there are characters and sequences which may make us laugh, Lee is not building this narrative to a comical punchline, but rather a climax which holds a dark mirror up against everything that has come before – the blessing of water from a fire hydrant in an earlier scene is inverted as a high-pressure hose blasts gathering crowds, the climbing temperatures throughout the day manifest as a vicious fire ripping through Sal’s pizzeria, and worst of all, Da Mayor’s rescue of a young boy from being ploughed down by a speeding police car is turned on its head when America’s forces of corruption, violence, and racial prejudice bring down the hammer of injustice upon the sweet, soft-spoken Radio Raheem. With this devastating loss of life, Lee lays all his cards out on the table, revealing Do the Right Thing to be a fatefully foreshadowed Shakespearean tragedy above all else.

Brooklyn erupts in flames, a devastating pay-off to the climbing temperatures throughout the day.

The matter of how one reacts to this devastation is another issue altogether, and one that Lee realises is just as complicated as the web of relationships within his sprawling ensemble. As Mookie picks up a garbage can and smashes it through the window of the pizzeria where he works, his face bears the look of resignation, with no resolute conviction of whether he is doing the right thing at all. As a result, this act of violence becomes something entirely pure: an unadulterated outpouring of rage and grief that renders all moralising irrelevant.

If the one day which much of Do the Right Thing unfolds over is a microcosm of contemporary American society, then the day which comes after is just a small glimpse of what lies beyond – a long, difficult healing process that may never erase the scars left behind by this sudden loss. A loss which might initially seem at odds with Lee’s stylistically bombastic colours, compositions, and rhythms, and yet which effectively becomes part of the fiery, expressive clash between righteous anger and profound joy, both of which will continue to burn in this community for a long time into the future, defining the lives of these rich, eclectic characters.

An image of fiery, indignant rage.

Do the Right Thing is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.