Why do you watch me? -Magda
Because I love you – Tomek
Early on it becomes evident that Tomek is a very lonely young man. He lives in Warsaw in a room belonging to the elderly mother of his best friend, who is off deployed by the U.N. There is also some brief suggestion that Tomek’s parents left him when he was very young. Look at him now and this taciturn lad of 19 is all alone. He has no true friends.
Every evening his routine involves waiting for his alarm clock to go off at precisely 8:30. He pulls out his telescope from under its covering and readies himself for another evening of people watching. Except he is interested in one person, in particular, his strikingly beautiful neighbor across the way. So, yes, he’s a peeping tom and his voyeurism is a bit reminiscent of Rear Window without the pretenses of a murder mystery.
And despite the clandestine nature of his activities he still somehow remains innocent in the eyes of the beholder. Daily he works at the post office behind the glass and in the evening he studies languages. But he’s continually drawn to this lady across the way. He feels like he knows her. He wants any pretense to meet her and so he creates a bit of fate anytime he can.
It means sending her fake money orders just so she enters the post office and he can interact with her. It means calling her home at night and hearing her voice over the telephone or taking on a job as an early morning milkman just so he can get another chance encounter with her. It even strays into the territory of purloining her mail and calling the gas company just to disrupt her life a little bit.
All these facets easily push Tomek over the line and his bit of obsession could easily be seen as creepy, in fact, it is creepy. However, when he runs after a distraught Magdelena leaving the post office and discloses his activities, everything changes.
He is ashamed. She is repulsed by his admissions. And that looks to be the end of it. But she ultimately realizes the innocence in his eyes, the sincerity in his voice. He says in the most genuine way possible that he loves her.
Intrigued she pries more. What is it he wants? To kiss her, to make love, to run away together? His answer? Tomek wants nothing, nothing. This surprisingly tender conversation leads to several more encounters. First, she willingly masquerades in front of his telescope and then they meet for ice cream in a cafe.
However, often times sex and love become synonymous terms and that is the underlying tension between Tomek and Maria Magdelena’s relationship. Though innocent, he wants true love, a love that transcends a simple physical act and is summed up with affection, intimacy, and an inherent closeness. He is taken with her beauty certainly but even more so he is invariably alone. Meanwhile, she is so enraptured with sex and denigrating such a grand (and admittedly messy) thing as love, to a simple physical act. She can’t understand this wide-eyed boy and his delusions. She’s ready to open him up to the way the world actually turns. And her callousness ultimately crushes Tomek’s tender heart. She broke it not by simply rejecting him, because this is a ludicrous love story, but truly obliterating any of the naive aspirations he had for love.
The final act is executed with pristine restraint because Kieslowski does not sink into melodrama but the twinges of emotion begin to overcome Magda as she comes to realize how much she devastated her young admirer. Now she looks out her window every night for any sign of his return. She tries calling him up to acknowledge her mistakes and even goes to see his Godmother.
In the final contemplative moments, Magda is finally given a view into Tomek’s perspective — seeing exactly as he had seen and envisioning the scene from across the way. As is his nature, Kieslowski’s film is insightful and thought-provoking, a fuller examination of his work in the Decalogue. It’s a rather perturbing parable in some respects, but that is only due to the perversity and desires that dwell within the human heart. It’s a telling Biblical allusion that the main female heroine is named after Mary Magdelena, a woman who was historically known for her dubious reputation and promiscuous ways. But it was the exact same woman who went to a redemptive transformation in the Biblical narrative.
Kieslowski leaves his film essentially open-ended but the character’s name is a powerful one because it somehow suggests even to the tiniest degree that these characters too can be redeemed. There is still hope. It’s certainly a tall order to make a short film about love that still manages to leave its mark and yet Kieslowski does it with immense grace. He employs brevity while still succeeding in delivering a thoughtful study on one of the world’s most perplexing mysteries: Love.