The Look of Love
Eric Hynes on A Short Film About Love

Seated with her back to us, hands buried in a frizzy thicket of hair, shoulders jackhammering in sobs, a woman endures a private moment of distress. Before her on the kitchen table, obscured by her wracked figure, is a puddle of spilt milk. Aphoristic irony is no comfort to her, and neither, for the moment, is Tomek, the Peeping Tom across the courtyard whose telescopic intrusion allows us to witness the woman’s grief. Titillation brought him to the window, but something else holds his gaze.

The hair, the hands, the sobbing, and the obscured milk: just a few seconds of rather ordinary—if direct and emotionally effective—film. It doesn’t hold much value out of context, but in A Short Film About Love—as in all of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s cinema—context is everything. And since Kieslowski’s is a subjective, character-oriented world, context invariably means point of view. The shot is shown twice—once at around the 25-minute mark, and again at the end of the film. The first time around it’s bookended by point-of-view shots of the voyeur, Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko); when it’s replayed—and crucially prolonged and amended—it’s from the perspective of Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska), the subject herself. The shot doesn’t exactly change meaning upon second viewing, but rather affords the viewer a chance to see a moment in time (or a moment in the life) through both the eyes of the observer and the eyes of the observed. The replay has the force of revelation. She sees what he saw, but also sees him seeing. In the process, and against all reasonable odds, a definition of love is articulated.

We’ve come across this set-up before—a private drama played out on the surreptitious stage of voyeurism, two intervening windows and hi-tech optics tingling film’s self-reflexivity and provoking the push-pull pleasure/guilt of seeing what we’re not supposed to see. It’s the cinematic meta-mixing of Catholicism and modernism, at once mediated and layered and irresistibly naughty. In the hands of Hitchcock, Powell, and De Palma, among others, the voyeur is a peculiarly contemporary sinner, occasionally, accidentally privy to the private (and perhaps deadly) sins of others but ultimately guilty himself of the impropriety of intrusion. What’s distinct, among other things, about A Short Film About Love, is that there’s no guilt implied by (or applied to) the gaze. A lonely 19-year-old boy who lives to watch dishy Magda prance around half-naked at 8:30 every night, Tomek isn’t harming anyone; indeed his ritual obsession plays as completely normal for a horny teenager, though he’s nearly too old to keep such a distance. It’s through his confusion over closing the distance that he transgresses: his interventions are harmful and possessive and lead to comeuppance and shame. But he’s never guilty of watching. He may be fast approaching the messy and humiliating next phase of his life—the encroachment of the physical world into his sweetly fantastical one— but his gaze remains finely tuned, capable of furious desire but also of great empathy. Those with the deepest of inner worlds, those most sensitive to their own silent feeling can often best imagine and accept the same complexity in others.

Empathy is primary in all of Kieslowski’s work, capable of elevating desire to passion, possessiveness to belonging, voyeurism to love. Whether he’s coaxing it from his characters or from his audience—often from unlikely quarters and always through emotional duress—he pursues empathetic feeling through seeing. Though his episodic masterpiece, The Decalogue, is ostensibly organized around the Ten Commandments, the real through-line of the series is acceptance—not the kind that suffers fools, but the one that sees people for who they are, and manages to dignify anyone and everyone through sustained, respectful attention. Kieslowski has no interest in scolding us over what we want to see—he rewards us instead with the privilege of sharing the company of characters as human as ourselves. Standing to witness the lives, loves, and tragedies of our fellow man is the path to empathy, and his movies alight our own silent, private, paradoxical movements toward fellow feeling.

But A Short Film About Love goes a step further. An expansion by 30 minutes of Episode 6 of The Decalogue (“Thou shalt not commit adultery,” if you must know) the feature-length film better establishes Magda’s point of view. The Decalogue version concludes with Tomek declaring that he no longer watches Magda, his innocence ended and her ego perversely shattered. A Short Film About Love is consistent with Tomek’s retreat, but it explores Magda’s belated interest in Tomek. Her efforts at understanding Tomek lead her to a much-delayed, irresistible inverse invasion of Tomek’s viewing perch (none of the sequence appears in the Decalogue version). With Tomek asleep on his bed, his wrists still bound in bandages from his humiliated attempt at taking his own life, his elderly guardian standing watch and preventing Magda from approaching Tomek’s ignorant form, Magda sits at the desk and uncovers the telescope. She looks into the viewfinder and sees the windows to her apartment. The light goes on across the way in her imagination, and the earlier sequence is replayed—the milk, the hair, the sobbing—intercut by Magda’s POV. All seems to be as before, down to the same passage of Zbigniew Preisner’s heart-rending score. She sees what Tomek saw, and that alone would suffice to win her over, to convince her that Tomek saw her that night and that her sorrow had a witness.

But now the shot is replayed in slow motion. Familiar as we are with slow-motion replays, we can’t help but lean in a little, to watch even closer, to try and catch what we may have missed the first time. Yet what could we have missed? What else could there possibly be to a shot so simple that we had it memorized the first time around? Slightly but seismically, the camera pans a little to the left, allowing for an empty space over Magda’s shoulder in the kitchen. An unconscious projection of what the slight pan had already conjured in our mind’s eye, a human form enters from above, the downward-looking perspective and interfering window frame making only the approaching legs visible. The form stops at Magda’s side and rests a tentative, trembling hand on her shoulder. After a cut away to Magda’s emotive face, the shot is continued and Tomek is fully visible, but he needn’t be, just as he needn’t appear at all once the camera pans to make room for his approach. We feel him first.

The empathetic gaze is finally acknowledged, and by literally looking through the lens of her own witness, she sees, she feels, love. Not via Tomek’s actual uncertain, unwilling touch, but via his steady, committed gaze, embodied here as the presence she desperately needed before and that now comforts her in hindsight. As Magda feels the (delayed) love, and we get to see a tender embrace during a moment of private grief (a moving fulfillment of many a lonely wish), Tomek feels none of it. A conduit for our emotions, he remains asleep, deeply alone with his own love-struck torment. The shot articulates love unconditional, unrequited; the love of pure empathy that asks only for the privilege of seeing its object and that requires not even an acknowledgement of its active gaze. It can’t be sustained and it leads only to heartbreak, but in the ardency of a young man and for a few seconds of film, it’s a lovely thing to watch.