Dekalog 6: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

The sixth episode of Kieslowsky’s Dekalog, Dekalog 6: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”, seems at first to be a rather trivial story about a naive young man who becomes obsessively enamored with a woman he doesn’t even know. Both he and the more mature woman he admires, Magda, live in the same apartment complex that links all the characters and stories of the Dekalog series. In this installment the young man, Tomek, is a shy nineteen-year-old who works in the post office and lives with his godmother in an apartment facing Magda’s apartment. From his window at night, he spies on Magda by peering into her apartment with a telescope that he stole for that purpose from a local school. As we share his nightly gazing, we see that Magda is an attractive, confident, and somewhat promiscuous young woman who lives alone but has several lovers who pay frequent visits. Tomek sees everything through the unshielded window of Magda’s apartment.

In order to get a little closer to Magda, Tomek engages in a number of subterfuges that do not involve the risk of a genuine encounter. He makes phone calls to her at night, but doesn’t say anything into the phone. He sends her bogus money-order notices, so that she will come to the post office and make inquiries at his window. He steals some of her letters and reads them. Then he gets a morning milk-delivery job just so he can deliver milk to her apartment. And occasionally he interferes more emphatically, when he prankishly summons the gas-leak inspectors to her apartment while she is in the process of bedding one of her lovers. Eventually one of his bogus money-order notices causes an argument between Magda and the post office manager, and Tomek, feeling guilty, confesses everything to Magda. When she asks why he has done these things, he responds by saying that he loves her.

For Magda, “love” means making love; there is no such ethereal thing as true romantic love. But Tomek’s love is just that, and it is utterly innocent. He has no explicit carnal desires for Magda; he simply loves her. Magda is initially dismissive of this wimp, but also a little fascinated. Tomek is clearly too innocent and shy to be a serious threat to her, so she taunts him by puting on a show for his peeping telescope by positioning her lovemaking in front of the window and then informing her lover that they have been spied upon. The lover reacts with predictable rage by decking Tomek with one punch, and now it’s Magda’s turn to feel guilty. She accepts Tomek’s timid invitation to go to an ice-cream parlor, and they get to know each other a little. Tomek tells her all about his love for her, while Magda assures him that there is no such thing. Feeling sympathetic for him now, Magda tries to initiate Tomek into the kind of love that she knows, but this proves disastrous and Tomek runs away in horror. Little by little the tables are turned; it is Magda who is now seeking out Tomek with her spyglass and trying to find out what has happened to him. His innocent, passionate love has awakened something long-forgotten or dismissed in her. Has she destroyed something beautiful? The final stages of this story are exquisite in their understatement.

This episode, which initially seems trivial, proves in the end to be profound. The film is not about marital adultery, at all, but about adulterated love. Indeed, 'adulterated', i.e. debased, is not simply a corruption of 'adultery', but derived from the Latin 'adulteratus' and is the more primitive. The superb cinematography underscores what is the operative theme of the film. Most of the scenes in the film, even more than episode five (Dekalog 5: “Thou shalt not kill.”), comprise point-of-view shots of people looking at each other and trying to fathom what the other is thinking. This episode is almost a textbook example of how to shoot such scenes with effective continuity. In addition, Zbigniew Preisner’s melancholic music, which through its varying styles moodily permeates the entire Dekalog series, is unusually soulful in this one.

As Magda becomes aware that she is the object of such rapturous attention, she is at first angry, then playfully dismissive, and finally charmed. It is a passage from self-reflection, to contemplation of the ‘other’, and finally to further self-reflection. The idea of “the gaze” has drawn the attention of a number of philosophers, including Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and the Feminist philosophers. Philosopher Shaun Gallagher summarizes the operative aspect of the gaze:
[T]he primary experience of the other is not that I perceive her as some kind of object in which I must find a person, but I perceive the other as a subject who perceives me as an object. My experience of the other is at the same time an experience that involves my own self-consciousness, a self-consciousness in which I am pre-reflectively aware that I am an object for another. This experience can further motivate a reflective self-consciousness, as I consider how I must appear to the other.
Actually, Tomek himself, has been the object of a tender gaze from the outset – that from his sympathetic godmother, sensitively played by Stefania Iwinska in her final role. She understands his lonely longing.

But the film is Magda’s ordeal as much as Tomek’s. When she is earnestly trying to find out what has happened to Tomek in the latter part of the film, one of her lovers knocks on her door. She doesn’t open it, and only tells him through the closed door, “I am not here”. Indeed, she isn’t. Her self-identity is now preoccupied with concern for another person and what may be going on in his mind (if he is still alive). She is not that “I” anymore.


your host said...

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Unknown said...

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Lynch Cronenberg said...

Love your analysis, thank you!