[Review by Antony Stubbs]
[Writer: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz | Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski | Aired: 06/08/1990]
“I see too deep and too much.” – Henri Barbusse
If voyeurism is as old as cinema itself, then it is only because cinema is in itself voyeuristic. Indeed, the precursor to the film projector was the Kinetoscope, a device designed for an individual to view a short motion picture through a peephole. Though we’ve come a long way towards updating the medium and making single screenings available to masses, collectives are nevertheless treated as if they are isolated viewers: observers in the dark.
The concept of applying voyeurism itself to cinema has been blessed with numerous works, perhaps most notably Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. These are films in which the protagonist/antagonist takes advantage of his isolation to gaze into the world outside his permit, for reasons that are best known to himself, yet with invitations to the audience to identify themselves alongside the voyeur, and similarly steal moments perhaps better fit for their subjects’ privacy.
In “VI”, lonely nineteen-year-old Tomek gazes across the gulf between his apartment and that of his quarry, Magda. Both parties are suffering, largely in silence, from an existential malaise: Tomek is inarticulate, reclusive and shy, Magda is promiscuous, frivolous and cynical of love. Over the course of the episode (or its theatrical expansion, A Short Film About Love), these two parties will be thrust together, partially by accident, partially by design, altering their lives and perspectives forever.
On the surface of things, Tomek’s behaviour is initially approximate to that of Jacek or the taxi driver in “V” [1×05]: abusing his position at the local post office, he steals Magda’s letters from an ex-paramour, supplies her with phoney money orders (I wonder if he handled the genuine money orders for Dorota in “II” [1×02]?), sabotages her trysts and calls her up only to find himself unable to speak. This last point is worth elaborating on, as it is important for us to see beyond the tomfoolery and find the heart behind the mischief. We have to look deeper.
The theme of looking is not only exemplified by Tomek’s peeping, it features repeatedly in the cinematography, especially when he watches her in the supermarket, where closer (should I say, more accessible) objects are blurry and indistinct, and the over-the-shoulder shot as she leaves the building in anger. One particular trait I appreciate in this episode is how the familiarity of the distant handheld shots of Magda’s apartment suggest Tomek is watching even before a cut establishes that fact, which is a sly and effective method of establishing a behavioural rapport with the audience.
Tomek’s social anxiety extends from an inability to express genuine feelings. Whilst voyeurism is rarely acceptable and frequently illegal, sometimes the gazer has an ulterior motive for ostensibly seedy behaviour: in Tomek’s case it is love, pure and simple. As he later confesses to her on their date-cum-interrogation, what started as base and carnal desire eventually morphed into a lovesickness exacerbated by his isolation. When he manages to work up the courage to phone her one evening, his words fail him not only because of a crippling shyness but because he struggles to verbalise his feelings (and how many of us can?). Her response is vitriolic, suggesting that this has become something of a regular occurrence. What he is capable of, however, is calling back simply to apologise.
We’re not used to seeing this kind of abject defeatism on the screen, but for those of us who have experienced overwhelming doubts in our confidence, this scene should cut terrifically close to the bone (and having spent some miserable time behind the counter of a local post office, I can vouch for the doubt with which one feels about making any impact on the lives of the people you see for scant seconds at a time).
Tomek is not without a reckless side, however, when he feels sufficiently pushed. It’s either immensely brave or stupid of him to call the gas board to report a leak in Magda’s apartment in order to interrupt an evening with a suitor, and this schism in his behaviour and our penduluming empathy is matched by his reaction to how quickly his ruse is set up and subsequently nullified: there is slight evidence of tears after he makes the call; then, after the workers’ arrival, a devil-may-care grin (he only smiles in relation to her) quickly segues into him punching the wall in impotent fury. And impotent is a key word here: Kieslowski mercifully sets the story long after Tomek was in the habit or masturbating to his little pornographic theatre, but the phallic telescope remains fixed on Magda’s apartment, for all of its inability to contact its objective.
What underpins Tomek’s desire is a longing to recognise himself: his perception of The Other is just as much a comment on his own failings and distance as it is about sheer want. The act of voyeurism is only a one-way street, and illuminates the looker’s yearning for the subject to reciprocate the gaze. With an inability to traverse this chasm, he does the next best thing by applying for a second job as a milkman seconds after discovering Magda’s frustration at an aborted delivery. If his obsession is indecent, it’s not without self-sacrifice.
Currently, the sole person who has an insight into Tomek’s behaviour is his godmother, though she isn’t revealed as such until her eventual confrontation with Magda towards the end of the episode. Until then our contextual distance allows us to assume she is Tomek’s biological mother, a person who possibly would have been more damning of his snooping. The absence of the true maternal figure is highlighted by the recurring milk (as it did in “I” [1×01] and “IV” [1×04]) and questions whether or not Tomek would be spying at all if true role models and pillars of wisdom factored into his existence. Despite the emotional disconnection between Tomek and his godmother, her own observations of his behaviour more than suggest she cares. But like Artur Barcis’ recurring character(s), can she do anything besides watch?
For Magda, love is meaningless: the reason she “spreads it around” (to quote Tomek’s predecessor and the godmother’s real son), is that she can’t find anything meaningful in the numerous interactions she makes with horny Varsovians. She is dismissive of Tomek’s later claims to love’s very existence; “making love” is sex, biological and chemical, purposeful yet pointless. For the first half of the episode, she doesn’t truly exist in three-dimensions: she exists insofar as Tomek can see her, and therefore all we can see as well. Kieslowski loves playing games with first impressions, and as “VI” unravels it seems we are invited to be similarly judgemental of her inability to “not commit adultery” before details trickle in that allow us to become sympathetic to her.
One night, as Tomek’s alarm signals her arrival yet again, her mood is heavily distressed by an argument with her current beau. Crashing around her flat, she places a, sorry, his bottle of milk on the table before knocking it over in frustration. As mentioned earlier and in several other episodes, if milk functions as a surrogate mother in the Dekalog, then his act of provision illuminates such a yearning, and reinforces a kind of purity in his desire. After Magda draws her fingers around in the milk, she is overwhelmed by emotion and sobs her heart out, thereby exposing hitherto-unseen vulnerabilities. No games tonight.
The structure of “VI” is like a race: Kieslowski once again supplies little in the way of contextual foregrounding, so context, themes and characterisation are supplied as the story unfolds, the director’s trademark dispassionate restraint allowing us to bring our own emotions to the canvas. As we observe the two parties’ behaviour in tandem, they seem to alternate in accelerating towards venal and questionable conduct, before they neck-and-neck in sympathy and compassion. Kieslowski proves he is human enough to demonise neither, and his structuring relates each party’s journey to flowers coming into full bloom.
As it did in “V” [1×05], something has to come to a head. One fateful morning, Magda drops into the post office with yet another false money order. Behind glass again, Tomek is of course there to receive her, his face unable to truly convince that he’s searching for corresponding currency, and further unable to mask his smile at her mere presence (he’s as adept at crime as Jacek in “V” [1×05]). It quickly fades, however, when she demands to see a superior: defeated again. As a miniature war breaks out between Magda, the postmistress and the postman from “II” [1×02], Tomek can barely look in either direction. His fearful anxiety gets the better of him at the best of times, and now he’s directly responsible for his love’s unhappiness. He follows her in quick pursuit.
In contrast to his emotional investment in her life, Magda barely even registers his presence any more than when he personally delivered her his first pint of milk, as he tries to get her attention and explain. His tracking and eventual confession are one step up from his apology over the phone, but briefly indicate the ruination of their ‘relationship’. She barely pauses for his reasoning, until he calls out that he knew she was crying the night before. Walking back to him, he demands to know why, and he lets slip his misdeeds. Her incredulity and aggressive reaction is entirely understandable, yet Tomek’s hangdog expression and solemn trudging away still elicit sympathy from the audience. Cinema invites us to look beyond what’s on paper, folks.
That evening, he observes her again. We can assume he’s convinced he has entirely sabotaged his efforts to make a connection with her, but such emotional investment can hardly be broken off so easily. She is still an object to him, after all, and ultimately he is no more attached or detached to her than before. Then, a surprising thing happens: holding up a fetishistically red telephone, Magda instructs Tomek to call her once again. She moves the bed for him to indulge himself (“Have fun”, she asks) as she arranges for her fella to arrive. As events unfold in the manner that Tomek is all-too-familiar with, Magda exposes the voyeur. The man is distressed to say the least, and marches downstairs to have it out with our peeping tom. Tomek is of course ill-equipped for a fight (not the least to say undesiring of one), and collapses like a house of cards after one punch.
The next morning, as he delivers milk once again to Magda’s flat, she manages to assault him further with her door. Though accidental, she is not only unapologetic but finds humour in his black eye. All of his cards on the table now (with scars to prove it), he finds himself free of inhibitions as they convene at the top of the corridor, bathed strikingly in the colour of love: an image now embedded in my mind. After he professes that he is in love with her, she quizzes him on his desires and is surprised at his disinclination to kiss or make love to her, physical gestures she could understand. In this single scene her character has shifted from dismissive to oddly fascinated, and when he asks her out on a date after very nearly walking away entirely, the audiences’ hearts collectively jump for joy. Whatever barriers or judgements we made of both at the start of the episode go hang as our belief in pure, undiluted love becomes manifest. There’s hope for these two yet.
Enter Artur Barcis. Until the scene of his arrival, Kieslowski’s camera has maintained a chilly austerity. Cutting straight from Tomek’s proposal, we receive visual confirmation of her response as he is filmed in an rapturous, freewheeling, even hectic manner that expresses his first true moment of happiness in the episode (perhaps in his entire life). In a way, Tomek’s exuberant run with the milk trolley permits a new freedom with the camera. He very nearly collides with Barcis’ character, who shoots him a smile: but observe how quickly it fades. As an indirect and mute commentator, we are required as an audience to pay particular attention to his physical gestures to ascertain perspective on the current scenario. In this case, it is that he is pleased for Tomek, but deeply sceptical about what lies in store for the couple.
The camera is trained on Tomek during their date to exemplify his awkwardness. She asks him to repeat those three little words if only to scoff at what she perceives to be a delusion, and to quiz him again, this time on what he has observed of her actions thus far. As he explains that he doesn’t watch her sexual exploits anymore, we are reminded of Jacek’s childlike nature in “V” [1×05]. Given his apprehension to talk freely, he requires her to ask the questions, indicating he is only half-complete, and that she is making him three-dimensional, a social being. She asks him for his hand, and encourages the act of watching by suggesting he observe and replicate the actions of more comfortable couples.
Despite her standoffishness, we begin to realise something at the same time as Magda: not only is she a half-person too, but Tomek’s investment in her is breaking down her barriers and allows her to express stronger, more genuine feeling than the purely physical amour she had hitherto relied upon for human contact. The very innocence of his love has re-awakened her memories of heartfelt, unadulterated intimacy. By increments, she is falling for him too.
Their rendezvous at her flat becomes the crux of their interaction. Tomek has begun to realise who she is beyond the pedestal he had placed her on for a year. Until now, Tomek has been merely a spectator to love: now he is participant, with all the giddy sensations of full emotional contact. Magda has begun to care for him also, but still mistakes lust for love as she offers herself to him, body but not soul (notably more tenderly than the groping exhibited by previous men, however). Overcome with sensation, Tomek ejaculates as he touches her thighs, his face contorted by a mix of gratification and disappointment. “That’s all there is to love”, she insists, and he can’t exit the flat fast enough.
Then, another curious thing happens: her immediate reaction following a heavy sigh is to stand up, and head to the window. She watches Tomek as he crosses the courtyard, where his dazed wander finds him nearly colliding with Artur Barcis’ character again. They register each other’s presence once more. He did warn him.
A single light blinks on across the way, and Magda springs into action, retrieving her own tools of observation: a pair of opera glasses. Her efforts to contact him by way of apology (the phone, a hastily-written message) count for naught, for she is divorced from our own perspective as Tomek attempts what Ewa didn’t have the courage to go through with in “III” [1×03] by freeing a razorblade. If you don’t feel a knot of sorrow and nausea as the water clouds with blood, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.
With this development, the episode’s POV turns 180°: Tomek is now the object, and Madga the voyeur. Though Magda is currently unaware of the tragic consequences, the climax (if you’ll pardon the expression) of their union has caused her to re-evaluate her attitudes and care profoundly about another person. Her armour is completely broken.
When her previous suitor drops by to contact her, but quickly finds himself barricaded from her life by a response of “I’m not here”: indeed, that “I”, the object, no longer exists. Her recognition of identity is that of a fully-developed person in an emotional and social sense. She is too preoccupied and invested with another to allow anyone to simply use and discard her again (tellingly, she subsequently plays solitaire between window-watching). Fascinatingly, the suitor is only seen through the distorted fisheye lens of a peephole, as he has become pure gaze himself, no more able to cross the void and possess Magda than Tomek could previously.
Crucially, she doesn’t change when she leaves the flat, instead she simply puts Tomek’s jacket on over her slip, conjoining the couple’s outfits at their most emotional state as she crosses the void. Arriving at the flat, she encounters Tomek’s disapproving godmother (“You’ll probably find it funny. He fell in love with you”). Now we become privy to a full glimpse of Tomek’s desk: the catalyst and epicentre of his desires. The table is set up almost ritualistically, with the telescope trained on the apartment opposite, barely concealed by a small cover (in the same fetishistic red as Magda’s telephone), the alarm clock that heralds her arrival, the phone by which he called her and a lamp which provides the only glimpse of light in this private world (perhaps redolent of hope, as in “V” [1×05]). Having ascertained the full picture, Magda leaves, still clad in the jacket, and only now learns his name.
Rapt with devotion, Magda barely bothers to dress properly from here to the finale, instead sporting the jacket at all times as a token of loyalty. In her new role as the voyeur, she absorbs the external details of her environment, from Tomek’s godmother doing the milk round, to the lamentably absent booth at the post office, to gazing out the window before the postman illuminates her on the reason for his hospitalisation. She slumps down by the door, the very image of suffering.
A small hours call could easily be interpreted as oneiric, such is its vagueness. Her repeated views across the gulf culminate with a silhouette of two beings, who seem to return the observation. Magda lowers the opera glasses.
Donning the jacket a final time, she encounters the godmother, who denies her query of Tomek’s safe return. Empiricism gets the better of her, however, as we watch her earnest and emotional gaze through the post office window as Tomek’s return (or dare I say it, resurrection) is confirmed.
Reunion. The camera anticipates Magda’s entry by fixing a gaze outside, fearful of what effect this meeting will have. She makes baby steps and he seems reluctant to involve himself. An eternity passes before one speaks, cutting purposefully between their POVs. He finally confirms: “I’m not peeping at you any more”.
In my review for “I” [1×01], I claimed that the series would run aground rather quickly if Kieslowski’s approach was to merely illustrate the folly of transgression. As with “III” [1×03], here we see evidence of how these rules need not be interpreted so cut-and-dry; indeed, what eventually emerges from this particular night is the emotional and social renewal of two entities that might never have met otherwise. From both characters’ journeys we discover that though they may not find love together, their interaction has made them whole again, and opened both up to strong, stable and full relationships with others in the future. It took considerable darkness to get there, but fundamentally hope is renewed for these poor souls, and that’s perhaps the greatest gift one can offer and receive. Seeing is believing.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Oh, the lighting in this episode.
+ The mystery opener of shattering glass in a room bathed in blue light (I think Tomek breaks into a school for the telescope), which reminds me of Kieslowski’s similar approach at the start of “IV” [1×04].
+ I’m not quite sure what that circular thing is on Magda’s window, but it surreptitiously reminds me of the gap in the glass at the post office booth.
+ Tomek’s little gulp as he watches Magda cry.
+ How quickly the postmistress loses her shit over Magda’s notices.
+ Tomek explains he learned Bulgarian purely for the sake of two kids in his orphanage. Once again, we see evidence that for all of his antisocial behaviour, he largely exists in relation to others.
+ The games with the bus: Magda plays a little chance with Tomek, claiming he can enter her flat if they catch it, but he’s going home if they don’t. Very similar to “III” [1×03] and again, Amélie. Your heart sinks when it leaves without them, then skyrockets when it stops a few feet later.
+ Whilst on the subject of catching the bus: Tomek’s enthusiastically childlike hop over the flower pot.
+ The cut to the godmother’s POV when the couple enter Magda’s flat.
+ Magda finding the crumpled notices in his jacket.
+ The godmother informing Magda they have no phone in an effort to sever all contact with her.
+ Magda’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it smile a split-second before the credits roll.