Thou Shalt Not Miss

The simplest answer to the question "Why make a series of films about the Ten Commandments?" would be: "Because they are there."

--Krzysztof Kieslowski

It's generally problematic to suppose that art reflects the true nature of the one who made it, but I'd still venture that Krzysztof Kieslowski must be an obstinate, exacting, somewhat sensitive, and deeply contradictory man. In interviews, the Polish director relishes opportunities to deny the complexity of his films by speaking in the purest of absolutes: "Because I'm tired" is the reason he gave for quitting the cinema after his biggest critical and commercial success, the "Trois Couleurs" trilogy (Blue, White, Red). Maybe a clue about the auteur's stubborn reductivism can be found in the words of another fastidious director, Stanley Kubrick, who once praised Kieslowski's films for the way in which "you never see [their] ideas coming." Indeed, Kieslowski, a former documentarian, begins his films with certainties (there are 10 commandments, two Veroniques, three colors on the French flag), then lets those certainties gradually erode into messy moral dilemmas. If the mark of a great art-filmmaker is the degree to which his or her films mirror real-life experience, Kieslowski ranks highly for consistently proving that nothing is as simple as it seems.

In 1989, the director set about the obsessive task of distilling (or is that expanding?) each of the Ten Commandments into separate TV dramas. The 10 episodes, collectively titled The Decalogue, are seemingly simple twists of fate which take place in and around a Warsaw housing complex; the two of feature length, A Short Film About Love and A Short Film About Killing, are finally making the arthouse rounds. Near the start of Killing, the murderer stops at a neighborhood cinema to ask about what's playing. "It's about love," a ticket clerk answers, "but it's boring." Or so would any mainstream-minded viewer say about either of these movies; with characteristic understatement, the filmmaker himself has described Killing as follows: "One man kills another and then he gets hanged."

In fact, Killing and Love are two vaguely Hitchcockian headscratchers which climax, rather unclimactically, with ironic bonds being formed between two pairs of dissimilar strangers. If the voyeuristic Love suggests Rear Window without the mystery, Killing grafts elements of the more savage, late-period Hitchcock (i.e. Frenzy) onto a sober investigation of the capital punishment issue; it's a horror film in which the killer is human nature itself. Despite the film's philosophical thrust, the straightforward tension Kieslowski builds before each of his two killings is worthy of the Master of Suspense himself. For the first murder, the director cuts between shots of the killer, a dour-looking young punk (Miroslaw Baka), clutching a rope in the backseat of a cab; the driver (Jan Tesarz) glancing in the rearview mirror, still unaware of his fate; the nervous expression on the killer's face; a line of schoolchildren passing through a crosswalk in front of the cab; another cut back to the killer's hands winding ever more tightly around the rope. When the killing itself finally begins, it feels at first like a relief--until it turns, appropriately, excruciating.

To Kieslowski's credit, the companion scene near the end of the film--in which the killer describes the accidental death of his sister, who was perhaps the only person to have ever loved him--is just as powerful. Still, even as the killer is made sympathetic here, Kieslowski stops short of denouncing the death penalty; the barbarity of the first killing makes it all but impossible to take pity on the killer, even though his own death at the hands of the state is carried out in a despicably expedient, self-righteous manner. On the other hand, for a filmmaker to pose such questions in the first place betrays a critical approach to the status quo; and by his concluding image, Kieslowski suggests that the cycle of suffering doesn't end with one murder avenging another.

Less formula-driven than the similarly structured Dead Man Walking, Killing is also vastly more complex. For much of the film, the edges of the frame are slightly obscured, as if there's dirt on the lens; the point seems to be that there's only so much about this story that we can really know. The movie's philosophical questions are further complicated by the way Kieslowski uses his characterizations to tip, balance, and re-tip the film's moral scales. Does it matter that the murdered taxi driver had berated his customers, or that he'd kindly given his lunch to a stray dog? Can the misanthropic murderer be partly excused for the fact that he's been victimized too? Ultimately, the film's message is that there can be no absolutes in questions of character. And although the killer is humanized and maybe even redeemed by his 11th-hour relationship with a death-row visitor, the notion that love might save the world is far too optimistic for an artist of Kieslowski's temperament and intelligence.

Indeed, A Short Film About Love, despite its title, has more to do with guilt and remorse and manipulation; it might not be about love at all. The film's narrative is spare, its images dark, its sets claustrophobic, and its characters forced increasingly to play out the most dangerously stereotypical of sex roles. The male lover is a painfully shy 19-year-old postman (Olaf Lubaszenko) who makes crank calls to a neighbor woman (Grazyna Szapolowska) while peeping at her through a telephoto lens. As if that weren't sleazy enough, he steals her mail; interrupts her tryst with her boyfriend by reporting a gas leak in her apartment; and gets a second job as a milkman as an excuse to come to her front door. "Love" here creates as vicious a cycle as killing: The postman confesses to being the woman's stalker, either to relieve her pain or, more likely, as a way of proving his devotion; she seduces him; he feels humiliated; she apologizes; he retaliates...

As Kieslowski turns coveting one's neighbor into the more universal act of voyeurism, the larger sin here is looking, wanting, and directing action without regard to the consequences. Like Rear Window, Love can be read as a metaphor for cinema. It's uncomfortable to watch, partly because it forces the viewer to accept the woman's frustrating passivity while also adopting the point of view of a lecherous male protagonist--which is business as usual by the standards of commercial cinema (i.e. Bed of Roses). But the difference is that, in place of fraudulent romance, Kieslowski asks us to consider the short distance between suitors and stalkers, movie girlfriends and mother figures, love and masochism. As in Killing, Love explicates a biblical commandment while thoroughly denying its meaning as a clear imperative; the more fundamentally religious among us would not approve. In both films, coveting is shown to be unavoidable in a society (even Poland's) where everything is bought and sold, and where people can only follow suit by selling themselves. If Kieslowski ever opts to come out of retirement, this might be the ideal starting point for his next movie. CP

A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love are playing at the U Film Society's Nicholson Hall; call 627-4430 for showtimes.

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