A Short Film About Love (1988)

Kieslowski’s last film of the ‘80s is, once again, an expanded version of one of his Decalogue episodes, a television series that chronicle the Ten Commandments as it plays out in a Warsaw apartment complex. A Short Film About Love addresses the sin of adultery, but like all of The Decalogue, it’s a complex and perplexing examination of a simple rule. Kieslowski is less interested in messages and more interested in how these rules affect the lives of the people who don’t follow them.

For Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko), a neighbor across the street has become an object of lust via a small telescope. Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska) is a sexy woman who lacks thick curtains in her apartment. But for Tomek, the simple distant gaze is not enough. He keeps finding ways to insert himself into her life. However, he quickly learns that the women he’s fallen for is not the idealized woman he imagined.

This is a painful film to watch because of the obscene relationship that exists between these two characters creates a lot of pain for both members. Magda feels exposed, rightfully so, and uses her anger to lash out at Tomek, coldly and cruelly toying with him. For Magda, love is some foolish fantasy, all that exists is desire. She makes it her goal to destroy Tomek’s love and show him the truth. Watching anyone treated with such controlled malice is hard, even more so with Tomek.

Yes, Tomek is a pervert. He started watching a woman he didn’t know in situations meant to be intimate and private. However, Tomek displays an unrelenting selflessness and empathy towards Magda. In short, he shows her love, even when she doesn’t deserve it. She doesn’t understand it and her confusion only fuels her malice. It would be easy to hate her, in fact, at moments you probably will, but Kieslowski, as always, complicates these feelings.

In an astound scene, Magda comes home, obviously upset about something. She sets down a bottle of milk, sits and then knocks it over. The milk pours over the table. Soon Magda’s tears mix with the spilt milk. It’s clear she’s in deep pain and alone. And in this scene, Kieslowski shows that even the most cold and bitter person is not one to be hated, but one to comfort.

This scene is just one of the many that demonstrates Kieslowki’s visual storytelling. The script is economical, relying on the images to tell the story, to convey the emotion to express the ideas. Pain, joy, happiness, sorrow, grief and anguish are all expressed wordlessly with lighting, hues and visual tone (and also the fantastic performers). Kieslowski’s use of the visual mood of a film also gives glimpses into the mood of the characters is unexpected ways.

And it’s clear that Kieslowski is about the visual splendors. As his films have progressed closer and closer to the ‘90s, they have gotten visually more and more sophisticated. The hues have become more complex, the lighting more intricate the image more enthralling. It’s with this film that Kieslowski’s films become a torrential downpour of breathtaking images that you just sit back and soak in as they overwhelm you.

It’s this synthesis of emotionally powerful storytelling and cinematic overdrive that makes A Short Film About Love such an unforgettable and unrelenting experience on every level. By the end, you’ve been rocked about and blown away by the power of the piece. And yet, somehow, it’s with a grace. Kieslowski doesn’t bring you down with a sledgehammer blow, but by softly and slowly picking away until he breaks you down.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing