Decalogue IX (1988)

Decalogue IX begins with Roman receiving some stunning news from his doctor – he is impotent, and will never be with a woman again. Kieslowski takes this simple moment and in light of its consequences, fashions characters that struggle with anger, frustration, loneliness, fear, jealousy, and brokenness. Throughout the Decalogue he places his characters in the midst of ethical dilemmas that challenge their thinking on any number of levels.

Most obvious in this film is the interplay between different kinds of truth and the falsehood that is borne out of that interaction. The first line of the film is the doctor asking what Roman wants to know, to which he answers: “The truth.” He believes that the doctor has reliable information that will determine the rest of his life. Roman, also a doctor, understands this kind of truth, based on observation of physical elements. It makes sense to him. It is objective, and can be trusted.

When he arrives home though, he is confronted by a kind of truth that isn’t scientific, but is rather based on personal commitments to love and be loved. His wife, Hanka, reacts out of love – maybe Roman won’t always have this condition, and it really doesn’t matter anyway, because love is more than, in her words, “what’s between your legs.” So, Roman’s physical and objective truth crashes against that of his wife, an inner, emotional truth. The distinction might be characterized by a rational versus a relational truth. Yet, neither of them is really prepared to deal with the world as seen by their spouse, thus breeding lies, deceit, and mistrust. A change is reached when, on that first night, Roman suggests Hanka find another man to be with. Her reaction that he shouldn’t say such things shows not that she abhors the idea, but simply that certain things should go unsaid. This decision toward infidelity only causes the pain to increase, and their lives to spiral further out of control.

The deceit in their relationship changes their vision of one another. At least three times, Kieslowski uses distortion and darkness to show the limitations of his character’s vision. First, at separate points in the film, the director shoots both Roman and his wife Hanka in their apartment through a glass on a shelf. As they walk past the glass, their image breaks apart. We can still see who they are, but something about their form isn’t quite right. Second, when Roman finally returns home from his trip to the doctor, he and Hanka ride up the elevator together in darkness. The light through the windows alternates, first over her face, then his. They are together, yet separate. We merely see glimpses of them, though never at the same time. Finally, the most famous limiting shot in the film comes when Roman has hidden himself in a cabinet, waiting for the meeting of his wife and her lover. Kieslowski shoots the entire scene through the crack in this cabinet, as the camera sways back and forth, trying to get the best angle on the characters moving around the room. Only at this moment, with his (and our) vision so limited, does Roman begin to really see his wife. And only then does Hanka see what kind of pain Roman has been in.

The lies that limit their vision of each other surface because the couple is trying to deal with an inability to communicate when their lives spin out of their control. Kieslowski uses an interesting visual cue to heighten this reality. Early in the film, as Roman drives home, the glove compartment in his car falls open. Later, when it occurs again, this time with Mariusz’ school papers in it, one might be led to think this was merely a device to move the plot along. Yet it happens a third time, after Roman has spied on his wife and Mariusz during one of their rendezvous’. He has been helplessly sitting on the stairs listening, then had to hide as they each left the apartment. He has no control over them or himself. He can’t stop their meetings; neither can he stop himself from spying. He’s angry, frustrated, knowing he suggested this course of action, but also knowing how wrong it has been. At the height of this, as he climbs back into his car, that compartment falls open, and we see that all along, Roman has had no control over his life. By all appearances he would – successful doctor, beautiful wife, patients who trust and like him. Yet with his diagnosis, his ensuing choices, and now the confirmation that his wife has been with another man all lead to his life spiraling out of control.

And so, in the midst of jealousy, loneliness, and anger, he decides to take control of his life – through suicide. With everything about his life in chaos (at least from his perspective), he takes control the only way he can. Ironically, he doesn’t succeed; he has no control over the end of his own life. Hanka has come back from her trip to try and find him, desperate to repair what’s been broken. And lying in a hospital bed, covered in a body cast, completely at the mercy of doctors, he speaks to his wife on the phone. She says: “You are there. God, you are there.” To which he replies: “I am.” Fade to black with the sacred sounds of Van den Budenmayer playing in the background. Those unfamiliar with the biblical text will miss part of the significance of those final lines. Yes they will be together, yes they want to fix things, but there is more. In a world spinning out of control, Roman utters the name of God from Exodus 3: I am. God is indeed there, and while the situations of life make no sense, there is someone greater in control. Thus Kieslowski, the ever-spiritual director, leaves his characters with the comfort of knowing they are not alone.

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