A Short Film about Love - Krzysztof Kieslowski
This is an essay I wrote in 1999 for my college/university Film Studies course. I really hesitated to put it online since it sucks (and was the first essay I had written in many years). In the end I decided that it was worth the humiliation if it made me a better writer. I can’t remember what grade it received, but it wasn’t very good!
If I were to do it again, it would have less bullshit but it would still be crap.
A Short Film about Love is the feature length version of a film in Kieslowski’s Decalogue. It tells the story of a young man (Tomek) and his obsession with an older woman (Magda) who lives in the apartment across the street. The final sequence of the film shows Magda going to Tomek’s apartment once he has returned after a failed suicide attempt. The sequence plays an important part in the narrative of the story as well as having a strong filmic style. In fact, the style provides at least as much to the narrative in the sequence as the actual on-screen action (of which there is little). Despite being the last sequence of the film, the sequence does not provide a conclusion, leaving a powerful and open ending.
Position of the Sequence in the Narrative
The film tells the story of a strange and innocent love. Tomek is obsessed with Magda and spends most of his life spying on her or attempting to attract her attention. When she discovers his obsession she becomes involved with Tomek and betrays him, causing him to slit his wrists. When Magda realises what she has done she becomes obsessed with Tomek, spying on his apartment (waiting for his return) and asking strangers for information.
The final five and a half minute sequence shows Magda going to Tomek’s apartment when he returns from hospital, to see him and apologise for what she has done. She feels guilt for destroying Tomek’s innocence and wants to be redeemed. Magda has been incapable of standard love since the incident (she turns her old lover away), and shows in the sequence that she dreams of Tomek being her companion.
The sequence has an extremely strong style, particularly in the narrative function and the lighting of actors.
The sequence functions as a climax to the narrative action of the film but does not bring closure. At the beginning of the sequence it is clear that the loving obsession that Tomek had with Magda has now been reversed. Magda feels guilty and wishes to return Tomek’s innocence. The dialogue and action in the sequence is simple, and can be divided into three main sections.
The first section is Magda’s realisation that Tomek has returned and she rushes from her apartment to Tomek’s. This section has a positive feel, possibly trying to give the viewer a feeling that a happy ending is not far away. The second section is Magda and the landlady in Tomek’s room. This contradicts the positive feeling of the first section by showing that it will be difficult for Magda, and that she must attempt to understand her obsession with Tomek. The final section involves a very stylised slow motion flashback to an earlier part of the film, in Magda’s imagination, and then a dream sequence of Tomek entering the flashback.
In the dream, Tomek touches Magda on the shoulder, in a very innocent and reassuring manner. She dreams of a more sensuous touch across her face and neck, knowing that Tomek is not completely capable of this action. She then dreams of her touching him in a similar manner. The sequence ends with Magda opening her eyes, possibly realising that she would be incapable of loving Tomek, because she would want more than an innocent love, or possibly realising that she would be content with the innocent love.
The interaction of image and music play an important part in the narrative. The music acts at the beginning and end of the sequence to provide feeling, strengthening the images in the dream sequence. There is almost no speech or other sound adding to the narrative. In fact the scenes without music are almost disturbingly quiet, with the landlady obviously ensuring that Magda does not interrupt the quiet by talking.
The entire sequence develops these simultaneous narratives: the resolution of Magda’s guilt, the landlady’s obsession with Tomek, and Magda’s possible love of Tomek. Tomek is shown as a serene figure – at peace. He does not move or say anything, and the camera only shows him once, as Magda enters the room, with the full light of the desk lamp on him, giving him an angelic appearance. After that shot, Tomek plays no part.
The setting is a realistic studio setting in contemporary Poland. The drabness of the apartment block and the apartments within it portrays a bleak existence, possibly providing a drive for the characters to find something more enjoyable in their life. Magda chooses art and Tomek chooses to spy on Magda. The costumes are both equally realistic and bland. The telescope prop is emphasised in nearly every shot, appearing to dominate the desk it stands on.
There is nearly no dialogue in the sequence, making the actions and the expressions of the actors the focus. The professional actors that play the characters have simple looks compared to a Hollywood star. A star’s artificial beauty would have detracted from the story.
Both Tomek and the landlady show very little emotion in the sequence. Magda shows hope, excitement, happiness and disappointment.
The portrayal of the landlady in this sequence shows the obsession she has to Tomek. Earlier in the film she mirrors Tomek’s stealing letters by lying to Magda about the telephone and keeping Magda away from him. She attracts Tomek’s attention by inviting him to watch TV and calling out to him at night, and is seen gazing through the telescope at Tomek in Magda’s apartment.
A very important factor is the point of view at the start of the sequence. The beginning of the film shows the world from Tomek’s point of view, with every shot of Madga’s apartment being through the window in Tomek’s room. Once Tomek runs from Magda’s apartment the view changes to Magda’s point of view - she become obsessed with Tomek. At the start of the final sequence, the point of view is still from Magda’s apartment to Tomek’s room.
Later in the sequence, when Magda is looking through the telescope, we have a slow motion flash-back to an earlier scene. Magda is actually looking open eyed through the telescope and imagining seeing herself crying over spilt milk. Then she begins to dream, signified by her closing her eyes, that Tomek was in the room with her to comfort her. The flashback in slow motion emphasises the section (remember that it Tomek mentioning this scene of Magda crying that stopped Magda from walking away).
In the sequence there are no tricky camera angles to influence our reactions. In every shot the focus is the characters, not necessarily their placement. The shots are close-up most of the time – with the characters face (or hands) taking up the frame.
The framing of the telescope in front of Magda convinces the audience that the telescope is the most important thing in this shot. The camera pans from the side to in front, inviting Magda to look through it’s eyepiece. Importantly we don’t actually see her view, there probably isn’t anything to see, but the camera shows us what she is imagining. The subject of the camera moves from the telescope to what the telescope can see.
The most important stylistic tool used in this sequence is the lighting. The sequence has very distinct side lighting and front lighting in particular shots.
The lighting provides a contrast between innocence (light) and reality (darkness or shadow). When Magda sees Tomek is home, she smiles and runs to the corridor outside his apartment. She turns the light on, providing light in the corridor (showing that she believes she can bring innocence). She asks to see Tomek and is let in to the apartment. The camera lingers in the light of the corridor for a moment, as if it wants to stay in the innocence. The very next shot is almost complete darkness, with Magda moving into Tomek’s room. Tomek is shown bathed in light. When Magda moves towards Tomek, the landlady moves from the semi-darkness behind Magda and steps into the light of Tomek to protect his innocence.
The remainder of the sequence also has some very stylised lighting. Magda is shown with a very hard side light producing distinct shadows across her face, she between light and shadow, representing the dark side of her life and well as the newly found light side (her obsession with Tomek). The landlady is shown with front lighting, producing very little shadow, she is representing Tomek’s innocence.
The whole sequence music has a very important effect on the style of the sequence. The music when Magda moves from her apartment to Tomek’s is full of hope, and abruptly stops when she enters the apartment. The section of the sequence without music was shown as a flash forward at the beginning of the film, where it had very disturbing music (more high pitched sounds than a particular theme). This time it is shown in almost complete silence.
The next section has music when Magda is dreaming through the telescope. It serves to lift the emotion and provide an end (though not a conclusion) to the film. Again, it is more uplifting music than the disturbing sounds at the beginning of the movie.
The source of the music is off screen and serves when there is no dialogue. It shapes our interpretation of the image, you feel relieved (almost happy) when Magda realises Tomek is home and goes to visit. You have the same feeling when she is dreaming that Tomek is there to comfort her. However it is not so dramatic as to provide a conclusion to the film - the music does not tell us what will happen after the film ends, the same way the images give us hope but not a conclusion.
The sequence provides a very satisfying end to the film, mostly because it does not have a conclusion. The film does not provide closure to the story of Tomek and Magda. I don’t think there could have been a completely convincing end to the story, and enjoyed the stylistic finish with the dream sequence. The emotion provided by the style of the film was more satisfying than a conclusion to the story.