Kieslowski’s Decalogue: the Gaze as Encounter 

The central characters in Kieslowski’s Decalogue are mostly lonely people. Most of them suffer a deprivation of identity, since identity is mostly formed in relation to the other. Their isolation creates a relatively silent film series in which dialogues are sparse. One of the key elements Kieslowski uses to symbolise the attempts for contact with someone else, is the gaze.

This can be the gaze towards something, or the gaze towards someone. In the Decalogue, as in other films by Kieslowski, objects are frequently presented in close-ups to symbolize key moments. Moments in which the characters recognise that something has an impact on them – an impact that can be both good or bad.

In Decalogue 2 for example, water dripping from a pipe is used two times.

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In the first half of the film, we see and hear dripping water on a metal pipe or the frame of a bed, and suppose it is in the hospital room of Andrzej, the sick man whose wife is pregnant from another lover. There is no clear location defined for the dripping water – even if the film cuts to Andrzej in bed, fighting against fever, feverish sweat on his head, we are not sure it is in one and the same room. He directs his gaze in a certain direction, but we don’t get a confirmation that he is actually looking at the dripping water.

Because we are not sure if both Andrej and the dripping water are in one and the same room, we are stimulated to read the dripping water not (or not merely) as a sign of decay of the hospital, but as a sign of decay of Andrej.

The same effect applies when after a close-up of Andrej’s face, the film cuts to water dripping over crackled plaster on a wall. The third time we see the water dripping on or close to the leaves of a plant – which is the only spatial link: these are supposed to be the leaves that his wife peeled off a plant. However, this plant was standing on the window-sill at their apartment, not in the hospital room. We could read this as a sign that potential loss is not only threatening Andrej, but his wife too, since she plans on aborting the child she carries if her man is expected to survive.

The same dripping water is used another time near the end of the film.

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This time however his wife is present, and the location is revealed to be the hospital room. However, there are two important changes. Andrej is not alone in the room, fighting against his fever, but his wife is caressing his head, trying to help him. And this time the flow of the water is not presented as something infiltrating the walls, but it is collected in a reservoir. Since the location is now clear to us, the close up of the drops in the socket also make us think of intravenous therapy, where liquid substances with medication are brought into the veins. Are we looking at a partial cure?

 

This kind of symbolic objects, often connected to characters by their gaze, are abundant in the Decalogue. They not only often symbolize a change or a potential shift, but because their role is not always explicit, they also enforce implicit interpretation – which encouraged other people to say that these objects in Kieslowski’s films often have the tendency to “look back” at the character. These objects often resonate and change perspective, in themselves, as well as for the characters. In the words of Vivan Sobchack: these are “key moments of reflexive awareness”.

 

In a lecture at Cinema Zuid  in Antwerp this Friday, I will also focus on the gaze between people in the Decalogue, how Kieslowski often shows us the gaze of people through reflections and framings, and how direct gazes between people are also used to show the evolution these people go through.

 

 

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