Articles

Discussing Kieslowski’s Decalogue VI
By Elijah Davidson on October 27, 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

Well, Josh, as soon as Decalogue VI started, I began wishing it had fallen to you to write the discussion-starting post for this film. Why did I wish this? There are two reasons. First, you are on record as naming Hitchcock’s Rear Window as your “go to” choice for the “best film ever made,” and Rear Window is a clear reference for Kieslowski’s film. Second, Decalogue VI swirls around issues related to sexuality and seeing, and your primer on sexuality in cinema and how we ought to view it is one of the most concise and measured articles I’ve read on the subject (and one of the most read articles on our website). However, Decalogue VI has fallen to me.

And maybe that’s okay, because as the film went on and twisted its many twists, I became more and more convinced that while sexuality and seeing are the currency with which the film barters, it values something else entirely – love. One could even call Decalogue VI “a short film about love” if one wanted.

On House of Cards, one of the most cynical shows of our time, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) tells his patsy and paramour Zoe (Kate Mara), “Everything is about sex except sex, which is about power.” Magda, the much more complex 'Ms. Torso' of Kieslowski's film, would make a good match for Senator Underwood. She believes firmly that love doesn’t exist and sex is nothing more than partnered power plays. So, when she discovers that Tomek has been spying on her, she feels violated—justifiably—and turns the tables on him, using her sexuality and his desire to take revenge. His desire turns out to be something other than either she or we expect, and their conflict becomes not a simple, sex-fueled power struggle, but a negotiation between innocence and cynicism.

We usually save all SPOILERS for the comment section, but I have to spill one here (like so much milk) to take this discussion any further. Reader beware.

Josh, I was more deeply moved by this film than I have been by any of the previous episodes in the series. The scene in which Tomek runs with the milk cart, full of joy after obtaining a date with Magda, made me tear up. When that scene ended with him telling our Watcher that he is sorry—for splashing him with water, yes—but also, I think, for not being aware of the way he was violating Magda by spying on her, for dealing in power instead of love, I was so happy. The Watcher smiles for the first time in the series. It’s the one time this man who “isn’t very happy with us,” as Kieslowski put it, is happy with one of the characters. It’s also one of the only times a character learns something valuable without experiencing tragedy.

This, of course, makes Magda’s manipulation of Tomek all the more despicable, the fall-out of that manipulation more harrowing, her realization (if not repentance) more triumphant, and the ending more optimistic. The ending isn’t as idyllic as the slightly longer short film Kieslowski turned Decalogue VI into, but I’ve never felt more hopeful as one of these episodes closed.

So, my prompt for you, Josh: Do you accept my reading of Decalogue VI as being more of a tug-of-war between innocence and cynicism with love as the rope than it is an expose on sexuality and voyeurism? And do you find it ultimately hopeful and, in that hope, different than the other episodes in the series?

About the Author: Elijah Davidson

28 Responses to "Discussing Kieslowski’s Decalogue VI"

  1. I suppose Decalogue VI is hopeful, Elijah, considering where it leaves us. But a lot of pain is endured before we get there, and a lot of that pain comes from a bungling of sexuality. So while I agree that this installment does leave us in a more hopeful place than most of the others and does function as a “tug-of-war between innocence and cynicism with love as the rope” (nice description there), I also think it’s very much about sex.

    The Commandment most often connected with Decalogue VI is that which forbids adultery, and what I love about Kieslowski’s approach is the way he takes marriage out of the equation, considering both Tomek and Magda are single. There’s something very clever about that, especially in a Western Christian culture that has come, in some ways, to idolize marriage. The result is that Decalogue VI offers a sexual ethic that is even more fundamental than one centered on marriage. Tomek and Magda are both engaging in sexual behavior outside of that institution, but that’s not necessarily what leaves them dissatisfied. Instead, their floundering seems to stem from the fact that Tomek views sex as a purely self-fulfilling act (voyeurism) and Magda sees it as a tool of power (over both the men who visit her apartment and, eventually, Tomek). By the end of the film, both come to realize that there may be a better, higher way to live as sexual beings, one built on real relationship.

    Of course, this does bring us back to the focus of your piece: love. This is, as you note, the first time we see the Watcher smile upon a character, and I think it’s no coincidence that his smile is in response to an expression of love. So your emphasis on love does seem apt. Could it be that The Decalogue represents the Ten Commandments in structure, but in spirit is 1 Corinthians 13:13?

    by Josh Larsen on Oct 27th, 2014 at 6:36 am
  2. Thank you, Elijah, for that moving description of that encounter with the Watcher. I completely missed the significance of that moment and went back to rewatch it.

    There is something unique to the visuals of this film. The many arial shots seen from apartment windows, the rapid back and forth of the camera from one window to another, and the way the lights of a room came on and we saw what took place there in relation to another room. It felt like opening the flaps on the giant board books I played with as a child. The foreshadowing of the spilling of “milk” and its association with shame is one of the best of such foreshadowing shots in the series so far, I thought.

    And there is deep relevance to today’s internet age where voyeurism and secret obsession takes a very different approach, from the relative innocence creeping someone on Facebook to the darker nature of Jennifer Lawrence iCloud hacks. The “floundering” that comes from “ viewing sex as a purely self-fulfilling act (voyeurism)” or “as a tool of power” and the eventual realization “that there may be a better, higher way to live as sexual beings, one built on real relationship” applies to our generation too. (Well put, Josh.)

    Which brings us to the ending and my question. It appears that Magda has realized that she has lost someone who actually cares about her emotions and feelings, not just her sexy skin. She begins to repay Tomek obsession over her back to him and in that ending looks at him with a repentant face that is very different from her earlier appearances in the film. But how do you think Tomek has changed? Is his face one of hardened disillusionment or has he now understood the errors of his action and is on the course to real, lasting love?

    by Daniel Melvill Jones on Oct 27th, 2014 at 11:49 am
  3. Good question Daniel, I too wonder about the ending. Has Tomek changed in the sense that he has come around to the true meaning of love? Or, has he become hardened and pessimistic like Magda?

    I enjoyed this installment primarily, like Josh mentioned, because neither Tomek nor Magda are married. This provides an interesting angle to explore the issues of sexuality and love.

    I also enjoyed the beautiful moment between the Watcher and Tomek, Elijah. Even though the situation wasn’t ideal, or sinless, there is a flash of something pure and beautiful here. It makes me wonder if Kieslowski is attempting to point out the importance of discerning the good or noble even in dark or troubling situations.

    by Wade Bearden on Oct 30th, 2014 at 7:34 pm
  4. Elijah Davidson's avatar

    First of all, I apologize for my absence this week. I have been in a place without internet access. Believe it or not, they still exist. I’m so thrilled to come back to see such thoughtful responses.

    Josh, I’m with you wholly until you say “Tomek views sex as a purely self-fulfilling act (voyeurism).” I do think he used to view sex that way, but I think in this film he is past that. Magda asks him if he masturbates while watching her, and he says he used to but that he doesn’t any more. He also says he no longer watches when she is having sex. Sometime before the film begins, his voyeurism has turned into genuine love. I think that’s Kieslowski’s trick here - we think we’re watching a voyeur when in reality we’re watching an actual lover.

    Beyond that though, I think you’re spot on in identifying the brilliance of Kieslowski’s divorcing (no pun intended) the sixth commandment from marriage for this installment and opening the film up to a more complicated investigation of the interplay between sex and love for another.

    Daniel and Wade, I too am not sure where Tomex stands as this film ends. I want to believe he responds to Magda’s remorse gently, that his love for her is reignited. As I stated above though, I don’t think he has to come around to a true meaning of love. I think he’s already there, and now it is just being tested. (For what its worth, the slightly longer short film ends on a much more absolutely happy note.)

    by Elijah Davidson on Oct 31st, 2014 at 4:32 pm
  5. It’s true, Elijah, that Tomek has moved on in his voyeurism, beyond doing it for his own sexual gratification. As you note, he even makes this distinction to Magda. And while I find it hard to call this “genuine love,” I’ll concede he’s maybe further along the path toward something like that. Magda is, at the very least, no longer a sex object, but another person.

    by Josh Larsen on Nov 3rd, 2014 at 11:32 am
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