[Review by Antony Stubbs]
[Writer: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz | Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski | Aired: 07/05/1990]
“We are always paid for our suspicion by finding what we suspect.” – Henry David Thoreau
Several years ago I read a (non-professional) comment that all new directors should be required to test their mettle by successfully making a full silent film to prove they are capable of entirely (or largely) visual-based storytelling. Whilst I only agree in theory (I doubt that said films could be marketed, which means that only producers would see them, resulting in something of a financial sinkhole), it’s marvellous to see works such as “IX” which prove the undying power of the cinematic approach, and on TV no less. I’ll give an example of its importance:
In “IX” there are repeated shots of a telephone in the centre of a room, flanked by doors on both sides. These doors lead in two specific directions: one to the outside world, the other to a bedroom. This telephone is only ever shot with purpose, with the potential to either make or receive calls. When present, married couple Roman and Hanka, the central characters in this story, are always filmed in relation to its position. The camera doesn’t hold the phone dead-centre, yet seems to pivot around it, so that it remains present in the frame at all times. The calls made and taken find the characters moving from, around or towards either door in relation to the object, forming a visual thematic microcosm of chance, choice and communication. Let’s take a deeper look-see…
Kieslowski’s exploration of “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife” finds the director relating the story of Roman and Hanka’s marriage violated by externalities. In classic Dekalog fashion, the opening is misleading: bolting abruptly from a bad dream, Hanka wakes and immediately looks for her husband, who proves absent. We cut immediately to his location: a hospital in which he is assessed by a doctor who confirms his impotence. Their dialogue is very much ‘guy talk’: quantifying conquests, querying Hanka’s attractiveness, etc. In acknowledging Roman’s problem, the doctor offers a decidedly expeditious solution: “Divorce”.
Of course, things aren’t that simple, nor is it even in Roman’s desire to do so. As far as Roman is concerned, this event cannot be resolved with pat answers, which is why this unsympathetically-delivered revelation is immediately followed by a dangerous skid, witnessed only by Artur Barcis’ cyclist. The skid itself speaks volumes of Roman’s perspective, relating his impotence directly to an uncertain future, and a re-evaluation of his current life. His drive is gone.
But though the episode thus far would seem to indicate that the Commandment corresponds to Roman’s inability to dissuade himself from pursuing other women, this is not the case. Cannily, we never actually receive confirmation that Roman has made any advances outside of the conjugal bed, though this subtle insinuation does suggest that if this is the case, perhaps his impotence is a physical and psychological manifestation of guilt, and such wanderings may permit and provoke the other partner’s affair.
Instead, the episode concerns itself with Roman’s obsession with the notion that a third party is present in his household, one who covets his own wife. As such, the episode takes the unusual tack of exploring the perspective of a witness to a transgression, rather than an active participant. The near-accident forces our attention towards a glove box that seemingly opens of its own accord, and refuses to stay shut despite our protagonist’s efforts: a literal refusal to close doors.
Come the morning after the couple’s discussion of the problem, Roman finds his suspicions aroused by a young man appearing out of the blue near his apartment as he sets off to work. Sadly, he has every reason to suspect he wears the cuckold’s horns, though at this point in time, the details are too abstract to confirm those fears. Thus begins an investigation into the circumstances of his own marriage.
Yet this suspicion comes with a certain endorsement: the previous night, after Roman allows himself to be soaked by the cruel elements, he suggests Hanka takes on another lover. It’s not an easy thing for anyone to think, let alone ask, but as far as Roman is concerned, his life as he knows it has run aground. There will be no more sex, no children, no physical confirmation of his devotion and desire. According to his rulebook, he has become a living failure. His wishes for Hanka to find someone else are a form of altruism: though his life has ‘ended’, her’s needn’t be. It would be an act of cruelty to expect her to be satisfied with cuddles, so he advocates her infidelity. Hanka denies the ‘offer’, claiming that their love goes beyond sex. But does either party really mean what they say?
The visual tapestry sows the seeds of doubt. Throughout “IX”, particularly choice imagery throws light on both parties’ attitudes towards the other. A phone call of uncertain nature prompts a POV shot of Hanka walking outside the apartment, as voyeuristic as Tomek’s looks in “VI” [1×06]. When the couple ascend the elevator, they are cast in pitch-darkness, which is temporarily interrupted by flashes of external light from the windows. These lights illuminate only one or the other at a time: though they touch, there is a separation between them that suggests division. Roman’s POV is re-utilised for his eventual witness of the tryst, from a wardrobe at his mother-in-law’s house, in which the frame is narrowed so much that only Hanka and her immature lover Mariusz come to exist. Indeed, Roman is often shown through glass, either ‘under’ a cake cover at home or ‘above’ a coffee table at Hanka’s mother’s place, insinuating that he can clearly see what’s going on around him, yet his diminished courage renders him unable to intervene. In fact, it’s beyond his ability to even voice, practically making him the Barcis of his own story.
Repeated use of reflections are also employed to highlight the characters’ self-image and how they are perceived by another. When Roman arrives home after his medical, Hanka is first seen in relation to him by her reflection in the glass doors of the apartment block. Before joining her in bed (the crux of their problems), Roman is seen in quick succession in the mirrors of both their bedroom and bathroom, but can barely look at himself. After the fateful phone call towards the end of the episode, his face is doubled by a shiny surface as he contemplates his next move, to which Hanka’s corresponding movements are shown first in a bus’ wing mirror.
Whilst Dekalog and indeed Kieslowski fans will be aware of the importance of his visual cues (welcome back, Piotr Sobocinski), they are especially operative in this episode as a means of designing an obsessive and self-absorbed scenario. Kieslowski typically yielded a huge amount of mileage from minutiae and intimacies, and here we find the audience’s perspective completely married to that of the protagonist. Fundamentally, we don’t want him to be right, so when signs point towards the affirmative, it hurts.
Some of these signals are enabled by his own sense of complicity: when we see him tinker with the phone to listen in on Hanka’s conversations, we’re almost as disappointed as he is to discover the first disclosure is merely chit-chat with her mother. Others invade: when the glove box opens once again in Roman’s car, he discovers a physics book, which he recklessly tries to inspect whilst driving (an extremely low angle suggests the gaze is reciprocal). The camera also intrudes on his personal space as he parks beside a waste container, zooming into his private world of doubt and supposition. Though he decides to dispose of the book, he quickly rescues it before departing, but not before a stranger’s rubbish is tipped all over it. More dirt.
Though by this stage Roman’s turmoil is entirely personal, it’s written all over his face. He takes a bike ride in which he agonises over basic propulsion, hopping painfully and eventually steering himself into the world’s most ineffectual suicide attempt as he crashes into a two inch-deep stream. He cleanses himself with the water, almost like a baptism. Though spatially isolated, a brilliant editing decision prompts another sudden start from Hanka at home, which can be interpreted as a abstract cosmic correlation between each other’s suffering. Perhaps this is what we mean by the term ‘soulmates’.
Throughout Roman’s ordeal, he finds a certain solace in his brief encounters with a young girl at his hospital. The presentation of these interactions is most curious: though pretty and genial, Roman initially finds himself at a remove from forming a strong connection. He is intrigued by her situation: she is encouraged to sing by her mother, but her weak heart is an obstacle to pursuing a career in music. Such a career is outside of her personal desires (“I want to live, that’s enough for me; I don’t have to sing”), but her efforts to form a rapport with Roman indicate that she is comfortable with an operation provided he is the surgeon.
Though flirtatious to that end, Roman is troubled by both the spiralling paranoia of his own life and his inability to take sexual interest in her. This latter circumstance has a curious effect on the audience: when coupled with the earlier sly suggestion that he was already playing the field, we shouldn’t feel terribly sympathetic that he can’t desire her. Yet it’s because of his extinguished libido that we come to recognise a purer, more altruistic yearning. Kieslowski’s camera is especially deft in these interactions: for the most part, the cinematography this episode reflects Roman’s perspective, if not his exact POV. So when our gaze is directed to her bare knees as she hums a piece she is expected to perform, or when it is positioned and held at such a low angle as to drink in her calves, we again realise that his baser desires are compromised, which alludes to his own defeated spirit.
The corridor-and-calves shot is also notable for playing games with echolocation: absorbed as the girl is with her music, we assume that the orchestral score that augments the scene is a non-diegetic externalisation of her personal stereo. Yet it carries into and overlays the next scene in which Roman listens to the record as Hanka arrives home, commenting that it is “beautiful”, and reinforces their newfound connection (note that the vocals don’t start until we establish that fact). Kieslowski fans will acknowledge that the girl’s situation is later woven into his next project, The Double Life of Véronique, in which one of the ‘sisters’, Weronika, dies onstage at the height of her talent. Encouraged as we are to form parallels in the director’s work, it is implied that the girl’s eventual decision saves her life.
Speaking of connections, the girl claims the music is the work of Van den Budenmayer, the pseudonym created for Kieslowski’s regular composer Zbigniew Preisner when his compositions proved important to the plot. ‘His’ work is referenced in both Blue and Red of the Three Colours trilogy besides The Double Life of Véronique, but you literally heard it here first, folks. Perhaps in gratitude for this recognition, Preisner really upped the ante for this episode’s score, with a gorgeously rich and captivating score, so imbued with melancholy that a small refrain from it was utilised for the standard opening credits on the Facets DVD release.
Anyhow, I’m neglecting Roman’s story here. Following the thread of his private mystery, Roman offers to collect some leftover items from his mother-in-law’s house, upon Hanka’s realisation that they have been left behind. Given that Hanka’s mother’s house very quickly emerges as the rendezvous point for her affair (he finds the workbook under cover of a glass table and a couple of magazines), her insistence of “Hurry, and don’t snoop around” suggests that his sleuthing be read as an abstract request on Hanka’s part. Though we are invited to considerably less perspective on Hanka’s part, little details such as these extend the idea that she wants to be found out – a latent expression of guilt.
As if by coincidence(!), Mariusz receives two calls in quick succession: the former is from Hanka, to whom he claims he has sent a funny postcard, that he loves her and will arrive later that day. The second is from Roman, who cannot bear to speak to him. When he returns there in the dead of night, it is to perch himself on the stairs and listen in anguish to the faint moaning of infidelity. Once again, we are encouraged to not judge Hanka too harshly, as she looks away from him in bed and makes her wedding ring visible to the audience. This isn’t easy for her, either. Brilliantly, the cut between the two locations almost indicates a look between the two.
An image that very nearly made the header of this review is from the confrontation in the couple’s bathroom. The reason why it didn’t is in the fact that its brilliance is revealed in motion: a mirror (again!) halves the shot entirely into a form of split-screen. Still no more able to speak of the affair than he could open his mouth to Mariusz on the phone (as addressed in Pat Barker’s Regeneration, mutism can be seen as an inability to continue existence in the face of horror, a stasis of trauma), they are positioned so that both faces can be seen throughout the encounter at all times. Human beings, human problems, human treatment.
Hanka’s subsequent phone call to Mariusz to arrange a meeting is naturally spied upon by Roman. She wishes to see him again, but Roman misinterprets the meaning of this, and tragically, not for the last time. As mentioned earlier, Roman’s voyeuristic supervision of the affair reduces his vision entirely to their interaction. His world has become their world, and he is left spectator. Though Hanka informs Mariusz in no uncertain terms that the relationship is over, I find it very interesting that there is no actual confrontation between the two men at all. This is doubly significant: it reinforces Kieslowski’s feminist perspective by proving that the woman is perfectly capable of choice, and relates Roman’s impotence to an inability to stand up for himself against the young, strong, virile male (you might even interpret Mariusz’ arrival in the episode as the appearance of a psychological boogeyman, as he doesn’t actually exist as far as Roman is concerned until he permits an affair. The fact that we are unsure exactly what bolts Hanka awake may reinforce this notion of the boy as a shared dream-entity).
When discovered, the couple reveal their hands. Convening in a bathroom once again, Hanka agrees that his earlier (perhaps desperate or throwaway) suggestion of adopting a child would be a sound idea. The furtherance of the practicality and earnestness of this gesture is denied to us by a door that seems to close itself, thereby severing our connection with the couple, almost as if it’s too painful to contemplate either party now reneging on a decision that may repair their relationship.
A change is as good as a rest, they say, as Roman proposes both in the form of a skiing trip to Zakopane. Whilst separated, both parties experience reminders of the circumstances of their solo experiences (that final exchange of “Do you trust me?”/”I trust you always. I love you” was asking for trouble). Hanka is visited by Mariusz at work, whom she dutifully dismisses, and Roman talks with the girl who confirms she has agreed to the operation. Then, these two worlds overlap as Roman observes a young girl (Ania from “VII” [1×07]?) playing outside as he pours milk, the tried-and-tested Dekalog symbol of motherhood (note that his view of the girl is again extremely narrow: this seems to be their only option). There is another phone call, with nothing but silence on the other line, and thus begins a small chain of omens, similar to Krzysztof’s in “I” [1×01].
Under normal circumstances, an absent reciprocal voice on the phone would mean nothing. But this episode has provided plenty of reasons for Roman to be suspicious, and they bore sour fruit. Naturally, he assumes the caller is Mariusz. Parking in a seemingly arbitrary place, he spots his temporary usurper parked almost adjacent, with skis mounted on the roof, aiming forward to indicate drive both literal and sexual. The glove box opens yet again. Given that Roman is beset with more doubt than Krzysztof, it is little wonder that he imbues this repeated random occurrence with metaphorical meaning.
At home, he resorts to the phone for answers. The method by which Hanka communicated with Mariusz is now being employed to ‘verify’ misleading information. The young man’s mother reveals that he has indeed gone skiing, to Zakopane. Roman slams the phone down without saying a word: it’s all he needed to hear.
The following rush of events might even verge on the comedy of errors, such is the weight placed on the cruel hands of fate. Unpleasantly surprised by Mariusz’ appearance, Hanka’s direct look into camera practically begs the audience for help. Knowing that none such is forthcoming, she runs for the nearest payphone to contact the hospital and inform Roman she’ll return to Warsaw by the evening. Of course, we know he’s not at work, so this essentially wasted call is exacerbated by a delay from another outgoing caller. She says she won’t be long, but time is everything.
Meanwhile, Kieslowski gleans characteristic mileage from the imposingly large and important telephone as Roman uses it as an appropriate platform for a final message. Shutting the doors as he leaves (including the one to the bedroom), he hears the ringtone just as he exits. If he interprets it as Hanka, it’s arrived too late; if it’s Mariusz, then it’s just more fuel to his fire.
The striking shot of the road in which Barcis’ cyclist is overtaken by Roman provides this viewer with immediate call-back to the ‘horizon shot’ in “V” [1×05] – no matter how many times I see it, I never find it comfortable viewing (in fact, I’m even reminded of my reaction to The Seventh Continent in which I wanted to reach into the TV and shake the characters by the shoulders, insisting “it’s gonna be OK”).
With so many (largely misleading) details in place, Roman’s cycle ride cannot be headed anywhere good. The soundtrack incorporates dramatic strings at this juncture, to underscore Roman’s fateful decision. As snapped for the review header, our man is headed towards a fork in the road. He seems to be determined to follow the ‘correct’ route until a split-second turn sends him down an unfinished road (the unorthodox left path, symbolism fans). This eventual decision comes with thematic forebears: in “VIII” [1×08] we saw evidence of the damage inflicted by misread communication, and in “VI” [1×06] the interloper resorts to suicide when it emerges that he doesn’t like what he sees.
Barcis’ character observes his passage on the road to nowhere with typical concern but remains (if you’ll pardon the term) impotent. Sporting the same pained expression as on his earlier bike ride, Roman’s slow but determined descent is intercut with Hanka’s similarly resolute journey on the bus from Zakopane, at which point the score turns not only melancholy but ominous. One of the shots of Hanka is inserted directly between shots of Roman’s heavy impact, in which she breaks the fourth wall once again to gaze pleadingly at the audience.
Hanka’s most attention-grabbing moments ignite a desire in me to analyse her personal journey. Right from the start of the episode, she wakes with a jolt whenever Roman seems to undergoing acute emotional trauma, an abstract empathic pang. Later, these rude awakenings are supplanted by a Brechtian method of relating Hanka’s theoretical awareness as a direct appeal to the viewer(s). When you consider that Roman’s crisis is exacerbated by his impotence slowly disintegrating his self-image, this visual process suggests that Hanka has become steadily more aware of his incremental self-obliteration and her participation in that has yielded a greater emotional rapport with him, an internal-to-external passage. Her recognition of the audience’s presence reaffirms their love, but at what cost?
We spot Artur Barcis’ cyclist one last time before he departs the series entirely, clearly having had his fill of human error. As he exists stage right, Sobocinski racks the camera to focus on the wheel of Roman’s bike, slowly coming to a complete stop. A crueller director might have ended the episode there, but I think Kieslowski believes in hope, as evidenced by the endings to “I” [1×01], “V” [1×05] and, well, just about every other episode.
Arriving home, the phone and suicide note don’t come into focus until Hanka has spotted them: a strong visual signifier of the director’s desire to empathise with her. Following what I like to call the ‘seasick shot’ at the hospital, she breaks down in tears after reading what she has every reason to believe are Roman’s final words. Mercifully, a nurse offers the phone to our ‘resurrected’ protagonist on the operating table for the final comment on communication. Their exchange is simple, and brief. He confirms his survival to her, and that’s really all that needs to be said.
As the vocals overlay the score during the final credits, a final piece of the puzzle is snapped into place. In a similar manner to the character of Auguste in the later Three Colours: Red, the girl can be interpreted as the daughter Roman and Hanka never had: the mere fact of her singing implies that she has gone through with the operation and begun ‘new life’ (“I know I’m someone else”), convinced of the importance of her beautiful gift by the ‘father’, whose investment in her situation was indirectly influenced by his personal distrust of Hanka. As Roman’s opinion seems to matter to her more than her own mother, this in turn makes Hanka partly involved, the mother she never meets (she did ask Roman if he ever wanted children, after all). Roses can grow from gardens of weeds.
Finally, I would just like to specify that for all of the Abrahamic trappings of the Dekalog, what I find particularly satisfying here is the almost karmic treatment of events. Though personally irreligious, karma has always struck me as one of the most readily understandable tenets of belief, and here is is used to examine two accounts of folly which loop around to wound their perpetrators: Roman urges and even promotes the idea of an extra-marital affair, yet suffers immensely from the knowledge that Hanka is sleeping around, whilst Hanka very nearly loses him both emotionally and literally as a direct result of her sexual liaisons with Mariusz.
Whilst the third wheel doesn’t really suffer to any comparable degree, both halves of the married couple take enormous tolls. Yet by finally addressing the problem, they renegotiate their needs and confirm their mutual undying love. The dual movements of Roman’s suicidal ride and Hanka’s bus journey converge on a single detail: they both mean the world to one another. If we construe Roman’s survival and their renewal as a reacceptance of the Commandment, Roman and Hanka find salvation via the Word of God, “so they are no longer two, but one flesh”. It’s always darkest before dawn.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The chilly blue-and-grey colour palette and that silky, gliding camera. And I’m not sure why I like lensflare so much, but I do.
+ Roman’s efforts to hide in his car and obscure himself with the rear-view mirror as if he’s the trespasser.
+ Smoking in hospital! Seems like another world.
+ Whose POV is that from a second storey as Roman temporarily discards the workbook? I like to think it’s that of Artur Barcis.
+ After having a second key cut for his mother-in-law’s place, Roman is filmed through a fence whereupon the bars visually imprison him.
+ Roman imitating Mariusz’ silly “hello”s after putting the the phone down.
+ The Pope postcard. I’m aware it’s meant to highlight Mariusz’ immaturity, but I got a laugh out of it too.
+ When Roman returns the key to Hanka at work, she flinches slightly at his mention of the glove box.
+ The visual synchronicity of Roman looking looking up at his own home before spotting Mariusz for the first time and doing the same outside his mother-in-law’s when he and Hanka convene there for sex.
+ Hanka’s post-coitus alarm blare, like a cry for help.
+ Roman’s vaguely morbid physics question.
+ Hanka literally closes the door on her affair when Mariusz reappears at her mother-in-law’s to half-heartedly propose.
+ The hurried and erratic handheld camerawork as Hanka looks for Roman after he escapes the wardrobe. There’s hardly anyway for him to go, yet the cinematography temporarily suggests he’s vanished.
+ Roman walking alongside the train to see Hanka off. It’s very much an ‘old movie’ thing, redolent of many a classic weepie, but Kieslowski’s obviously not tired of seeing it, and neither am I.