Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Love (1988) comes within a hair’s breadth of matching the brilliance of its companion piece, the other Dekalog-expanded drama A Short Film About Killing. It’s like choosing a favourite child. Heads or tails? Regardless, this is yet another near masterpiece from the legendary late Polish director. Though the title, taken at face value, may suggest otherwise, there is little joy to be gleaned from this perceptive, complex exploration of two fascinating characters – one, a 19 year old boy, the other an experienced woman he has become obsessed with and spies on daily with a telescope.
Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) has no experience with the opposite sex. A one-time orphan who now lives a cloistered life with the mother of a friend who is away performing service, he works as a clerk in a post office. His one true obsession – and a voyeuristic one at that – is a beautiful woman in an adjacent apartment building, Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska), whose succession of lovers cause angst for the lonely Tomek wallowing in his adolescent fantasies and imagining himself in love.
Tomek fabricates notices of money orders just to ensure Magda’s appearance at the post office so he can study her at close range, even if for a few paltry moments. He spies on her in public, even accepting an early morning milk delivery job so he has a reason for materialising on her doorstep. Subtly ingratiating his way into Magda’s life inevitably causes a public scene where he breaks down, finally blurting out the truth, that he’s been observing her from afar for a year.
Magda is initially offended, but then intrigued and begins to toy with Tomek, seeing the inherent humour in his infatuation. She leads him on, spurring his jealousy with a playful enactment of sex with her beau – as Tomek looks on from his darkened vantage point – that’s meant to emphasise how limited the boy’s definition of ‘love’ really is.
Magda openly confesses that she’s “not a good person.” Neither does she even believe in the concept of love. Is there a chance the two share surprising similarities that aren’t immediately obvious? A devastating miscalculation occurs when Magda devises a final lesson to show Tomek the true connotations of the word ‘love’. This leads to a humiliation that has the boy scampering for aloneness and a potentially tragic solution.
As ever, Kieslowski extracts magnificent performances from his lead actors. Lubaszenko will have you squirming with his perfectly judged portrayal of youthful awkwardness and insecurity. But it’s Szapolowska as the extraordinary Magda who embodies the film’s intricacies, successfully evoking her character’s painfully conflicted emotions, leading finally to stark and illuminating insights into her hollow, carefree existence.
It’s only as A Short Film About Love draws to a conclusion, that you realise the profound implications of Kieslowski’s mastery – again with the plaintive but stirring simplicity of composer Zbigniew Preisner’s main theme gently reverberating in every frame. I’m not sure I have the words to do the complexity of these moments justice, to describe the powerful juxtaposition of emotions that Kieslowski stirs within both Magda and his audience. But don’t say you weren’t warned: one of the most heartbreaking final scenes I can remember in any film awaits.