Discussing Kieslowski’s Decalogue IV
By Elijah Davidson on September 29, 2014

This is part of a ten-part dicussion series we did with Think Christian. The other half of the series can be found on the Think Christian website. - Editor

Of all the films in this series so far, this is the one that most clearly connects to the Commandment ostensibly in question – the fourth or fifth one (depending on which order you observe) about honoring one’s father and mother. Gone are the murky waters of other gods and more modern graven images, sacred speech, and holy days. Here we have a somewhat straightforward dealing with parents, children, and the honor due each.

Or at least Decalogue IV is candid in theme. The situational ethics of the story are anything but plain. A young woman and her father redefine their relationship in light—candlelight, perhaps—of a revelation long-hidden in a letter left behind by the family’s long-deceased matriarch. Nothing is what it seems, it seems, and this is increasingly true as the plot unfolds.

Decalogue IV features a story that could have been aptly told by either Roman Polanski or Alfred Hitchcock. However, there’s something about Kieslowski’s less polished style that makes the film’s psychosexual plot twists even more quease-inducing than they would have been captured by either of those other masters. Perhaps it’s because there’s no Hollywood gloss here. It’s just two very real-feeling people expressing things that are forbidden in normal father-daughter relationships.

The film hinges on the revelation of hidden things, and the most hidden things aren’t the late mother’s secrets. Rather, they’re the inclinations and suspicions the father and daughter have never before verbalized, flames of passion kept burning under a basket. The events of the story are like a splash of water that both wakes them up and threatens to douse whatever mutual affection is there, positive or not.

Now, I assume Kieslowski is playing with prohibitions as a way of getting us to consider the hidden difficulties in “honoring one’s father and mother.” Sexuality is the spoon that stirs the pot. Honestly, I found it somewhat distracting. I think the questions of familial loyalty in light of the letter’s revelations are provocative enough. What about you, Josh? Do you think the film’s emphasis on sexuality adds or detracts from the underlying questions about what honor parents and children owe each other?

About the Author: Elijah Davidson

10 Responses to "Discussing Kieslowski’s Decalogue IV"

  1. Decalogue IV stirs the pot, all right.

    Well, Elijah, I do think you’re right to say that the questions of family loyalty brought about by the initial letter would have been enough to serve this film. After all, an extremely similar (and real world!) scenario served Sarah Polley’s recent Stories We Tell just fine – and it runs twice as long as Decalogue IV.

    But we’re ultimately left with where Kieslowski decided to go, and that is undoubtedly into taboo territory. I’d largely agree that it’s an awful lot for a 55-minute movie to take on, especially given that the “romantic” element doesn’t come into play until the end. Things were already complicated between father and daughter, they then become infinitely more complicated, and I’m not sure the handful of conversations we get between them reveal or explore enough of the psychological/sociological elements at play.
    In Decalogue IV - maybe more so than in the other installments thus far - Kieslowski instead seems content to take a seemingly “simple” Commandment and plunk it down in the messiness of human reality. But given how messy things get here, the movie could probably have used some more stirring.

    By the way, I love that you reference Polanski and Hitchcock. From the “thriller” opening – parallel shots of father and daughter covertly peering through blinds – to Adrianna Biedrynska’s fright look as Anna (pale face, sunken eyes, white robe, hair askew), I thought I may have popped in the wrong DVD. In terms of cinematography, this is the darkest installment yet, no? Between that and the frightening family dynamics, I also thought of Ingmar Bergman (especially Cries and Whispers).

    by Josh Larsen on Sep 29th, 2014 at 6:37 am
  2. There is an affection and warmth to this whole film, I thought, carried through by the film’s glowing, candle lit cinematography and personified in the father and daughter’s tender relationship. The opening water dumping scene proves that the ALS trend is not so recent as we think and also called into question early on the relationship of these two. Are these characters lovers or relations? It’s not immediately clear.
    But these two characters are finely acted and convincingly executed.  There is even a humour not often visible in past episodes - an awkward irony when the doctor enters the and we now know who exactly this is. Perhaps the rewatchability of this series will be higher than I originally expected, if only for these cameos and connections.
    In any case we at last have a commandment that the film sinks its teeth into. How to honour ones parents even when one grows independent but still lives under their roof is a question I’m faced with daily. What this honouring looks like when the validation of that parenthood is under question is still more complex. And yet again there is not just one commandment at play here. Deception and sexuality prove that a moral universe with or without a clear moral code is a complex one indeed. But I’m glad I’m not alone in finding the sexual element a little weird and over the top.
    And yet I’m glad it is there, if only for that touching scene where the father drapes the sweater over his daughters naked torso. Here there is a sensitivity that seems to say “I will treat you like my daughter no matter who you are to me biologically.” There is a certain selfless sacrifice here that she had missed and I wonder too if this points to the grace of Christ in the midst of the complexities of honouring these commandments. Thoughts?

    by Daniel Melvill Jones on Sep 29th, 2014 at 9:24 pm
  3. Elijah Davidson's avatar

    It’s certainly the darkest film yet. I enjoy the change in cinematographers from film to film. It keeps things interesting, and mostly, seems to fit the overall mood of each episode. I’m not sure I’d call it a “warmth” though. It feels more melodramatic to me, like a soap opera, the flickering candles an all too familiar symbol of burning passion.

    The water dumping is interesting though, especially as I’ve researched it a little more. Apparently, it is a Polish custom called Śmigus-Dyngus or “wet Monday,” in which boys and girls with crushes on each other get each other wet as signs of their affections. The opening moments of the film in which the father and daughter do the same is meant to suggest their romantic inclinations, I guess.

    Overall, the soap opera element doesn’t work for me, but I’ve never been one for melodrama. I’d rather have Stories We Tell or any of the other episodes we’ve watched so far. Maybe we’re better off when Kieslowski keeps the Commandments buried further beneath the narrative than bringing them up to the surface so obviously.

    Daniel, I like your idea about an episode focused on how to honor one’s parents even as the child grows more independent. That’s in there somewhere too, but for me the sexuality is just too distracting. Could that be Kieslowski’s point - tensions of a sexual nature are always undergirding other familial tensions? That sexuality is at the core of what a family inherently is? I could understand that argument, I think.

    (For what it’s worth, though I’ve seen “Christ moments” in the other films, none jumped out at me here.”

    by Elijah Davidson on Oct 2nd, 2014 at 3:52 pm
  4. This might be the place to spend some time on “the watcher,” that unnamed figure who appears here and there observing the main characters. Decalogue IV gave him his largest presence, it seems, in that foreboding scene of a kayaker approaching the daughter as she sits along the riverbank, deciding whether or not to open the letter. Turns out he is this watcher. He swiftly comes ashore, stares at her, heaves the kayak upon his back and continues to look at her as he passes by. What is his role here, and in the series so far? Kieslowski himself wasn’t much help with this. Roger Ebert quoted him as saying this about the character: “I don’t know who he is; just a guy who comes and watches us, our lives. He’s not very pleased with us.”

    by Josh Larsen on Oct 3rd, 2014 at 6:20 am
  5. I was going to recommend the same thing, Josh. In each of the films, he seems to appear when the main characters are at a decision point. In D1, he looks at the father while he (the father) is checking the strength of the ice. In D2, he looks on both Dorota and the doctor/consultant as they are each pondering their responses to the situation. In D3, he is the trolley-car driver, looking on unblinkingly as Janusz plays chicken with him.

    He doesn’t seem to be judging the characters. Maybe he is God, looking on them as they navigate through their moral crisis. Or maybe he is the law itself. In D1 and D3, they literally have to face him. In D4, he shows up twice, when she his considering opening the letter, and the morning after the game she played with her father.

    by Jeremy Doan on Oct 6th, 2014 at 2:56 pm
  6. This installment is the one that has most divided my opinions. I was quite drawn in by the acting. I just found myself connecting with both characters, very intrigued by their journey, despite its strangeness. The film’s frank exploration of sexuality and attraction through the familial construct was captivating, but, unfortunately, the story really doesn’t know what to do with itself. There were interesting themes set up in, like Elijah said, the vein of Hitchcock or Polanski, but never fully explored or followed through. The characters (and Kieslowski) seemed willing to “go there,” but once there, nothing much is said. I agree with you Josh, that their conversations and any other psychological elements aren’t really dealt with, just laid out there kind of lazily. Elijah, maybe the melodrama would’ve paid off more if one of the two threads had been committed to instead of trying to weave the mother’s letter story-line in with the romance between the two?

    There is a fascinating, maybe subtler, and definitely more jarring story here, but it’s never committed to. I’d have really been intrigued by this story going all in on what you mentioned Elijah: exploring the tensions of a sexual nature that undergird familial tensions, sexuality being at the core of the family.

    In dealing with the “watcher” in this episode, I felt that his placement here was as heavy and on-the-nose as the story itself was. So far, Kieslowski has been giving us subtle, carefully drawn stories and themes, not obviously based on their respective commandments, but in this one we are screamed at. This one is clearly about parents and children. This blatant storytelling reverberates in the omniscient/judging presence of the watcher in this episode. Honestly, I was a bit annoyed by his presence in this one.

    Oh, maybe the audience is the watcher, with judging stare during these people’s most vulnerable, formative moments within these stories. Maybe Kieslowski is challenging the way we see these characters, saying that we can be quick to judge (like the law) but he’s calling us to grace, to better understand these characters as we watch each of their stories unfold.

    by Colin Stacy on Oct 7th, 2014 at 9:01 pm
  7. Elijah Davidson's avatar

    Maybe instead of asking “why” the Watcher is there—since Kieslowski himself didn’t have a purpose for him, apparently—we ought to consider how his presence “feels” to us. How does his presence affect us as we watch him watching?

    For me, he is a little eerie, and I’m glad he’s not my neighbor. Not that I’d forget, but he also reminds me that these people are all connected by the place where they live. Everything that’s happening is part of the life of this apartment complex. He makes me wonder what I’d see if I paid more attention to my neighbors. He does seem kind of judgmental, but I think I’m just projecting my judgement of the characters onto him.

    For what it’s worth, is this everyone’s least favorite entry in the series so far? It’s certainly mine.

    by Elijah Davidson on Oct 8th, 2014 at 8:54 am
  8. III and IV have been a bit underwhelming for me, though still provocative. Good news though - just finished V and thought it was back at the level of the first two.

    by Josh Larsen on Oct 8th, 2014 at 6:07 pm
  9. Yeah, I think there is going to be some great discussion about V, a.k.a A Short Film About Killing.

  10. Elijah, I’m with you on how the Watcher should be viewed. He does seem to be the thread which weaves all these people together within this space, forcing us to consider our neighbors. My initial reaction was that I’d rather Kieslowski have framed the grand connection in this space via more shots of the actual space of the complex to give an architecture to these relationships. But, after mulling over it, The Decalogue is a grand story about the humans within this space, so it actually may be a better choice to allow a human to bind them together. It also reflects that the law as a concrete guide and lord wasn’t fully realized until it was embedded within the person of Christ. The Watcher in a way incarnates the shadow of the law, humanizing it.

    This and III are at the bottom of the totem for me as well. Though, I think IV’s premise, if taken in a different direction, could’ve been truly great. Kieslowski using the commandments as a lens to view sexuality just feels right, and III is my least favorite.

    Looking forward to V next week then.

    by Colin Stacy on Oct 10th, 2014 at 8:35 am
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