Decalogue: Four (1988) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Decalogue: Four (1988)

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My examination of The Decalogue is a full analysis of each film, its themes and visual strategy.  If you have not seen The Decalogue, I would highly advise stopping here and watching it before continuing.

"Honor thy father and thy mother"

Andrew COMMENTARYFans of psychological fiction would do well to join me in examining the fourth film in The Decalogue series.  It deals with some heavy identification issues and contains so much shifting symbolism it can difficult to see who represents what to who.  I'm not talking symbolism in the "Oh, the statue symbolizes the country's continued strength" sense.  Rather I am speaking about the way that certain objects and feelings fill a psychological void that is left by the lingering presence of The Other.  Brace yourselves, it's about to get Lacanian in Kieslowski's world.

Or perhaps the more accurate way of putting it is to say that it's highlighted a lot more here than in other films.  Decalogue: Four deals with a lot of heavily Oedipal issues and does not give us any easy answers to why the characters behave as they do.  With that in mind, we join Anka (Adrianna Biedrynska) and her father Michal (Janusz Gajos) who have carved out a small piece of happiness in the oppressive Warsaw apartment complex.  They play pranks on each other and have a happy life, as they have been alone with each other since Anka's mother died when she was only five days old.

The central issue in Four begins when Michal goes on a business trip and Anka discovers a letter that bears her mother's handwriting.  It says that it is only meant to be read after she and Michal are both dead.  Anka sits by the riverside and tries to work up the nerve to open the letter when the recurring "Angel" arrives from the sea and the two stare at each other for awhile.  The unspoken communication they have leaves Anka with a lessened desire to open the letter and the film jumps to a week later.

Michal has returned and Anka begins quoting from the letter.  It says that Michal was never Anka's father and that he is a dear friend and lover, but that she had an affair with one of his friends and Anka is his daughter, not Michal's.  This brings long subdued feelings to the surface as Anka acknowledges that she has had a strange longing for this man that she suspected might not be her father.  Michal reveals that he was jealous of Anka's boyfriends and that he wished that he could have been in their position as she was growing up.

We have entered some incredibly stormy psychological waters.  In Lacanian psychoanalysis the Oedipus Complex is a stage of psychological growth in children as they transition fully into the Symbolic realm of language.  The stages of the Oedipal Complex teach us the first of several subconscious rules that guide our moral framework.  That rule is, "You don't have sex with your parents", and you learn to control your sexual urges toward your mother or father and instead see what is appealing in them which could be transferred toward a potential mate.  Successful completion of the Oedipus Complex helps us to understand some of the subconscious rules of society, and establishes our own mental framework as to how we will respond to law.

What we have in Four is a family unit that was never able to completely transition out of the Oedipus Complex.  The lack of a mother figure means that Michal was never able to display sexual longing in any fashion, so Anka is free to continue seeing her "father" as a potential sexual partner and vice versa.  Confusing the issued further, it is still left up in the air as to whether Michal is her father or not.  Even worse, it is revealed at the climax of the film that Anka made the letter up and forged her mother's handwriting.

If we are to take this as true, then why would Anka write the letter in her mother's handwriting and deny her "father" his status as her biological progenitor?  She is displaying a Freudian wish of intriguing implications.  Left with the opportunity of forging her own relations, she opts to position her father as a possible sexual partner instead of the one person that she should not be having sex with.  The lessons that would be imparted on her by the Oedipus Complex do not seem to have taken hold, and fantasy guides her decision.

Then the actions of Michal take things a step further.  Until it is revealed that Anka forged her mother's handwriting Michal takes the allegations absolutely seriously.  For him to reveal that he was attracted to Anka we have to look at a few distinct possibilities as to why he would play along with this.

The first is that he has his own Freudian wish to sleep with his daughter.  It's not uncommon for father's to have this wish, it's just disguised in desiring the friends of the daughter or dressed up in other sexual frustrations.  In this case he would have been presented with the direct opportunity to do so, is ashamed that she acknowledges this, and then plays along with the lie so that he can see if he can go through with it.

The second possibility is that he really is not Anka's father.  It's suggested through photographs and discussions with old family friends that Anka's mother probably had an affair with one of Michal's friends.  Michal could very easily have been going through life thinking that Anka was his daughter, but now that the truth is revealed he is free to no longer suppress the feelings that he has for his "daughter".

After Anka and Michal decide that they cannot go through with it Anka takes the steps to try and reestablish the old symbolic order of "father" and "daughter".  She reveals the forgery and the two decide that the contents of the letter are not worth knowing and decide to burn the letter.  They are getting rid of the signifier that may mean anything, and instead are choosing to let it signify nothing.  They burn the letter, and then try and fulfill the last thrusts of their Freudian wishes by reading the charred words that remain.

"Michal is not..."

Then it ends.

We have another story with direct correlations to the Commandment that the plot is tied to.  If she is supposed to honor her mother and father, who is Anka betraying by reading the letter?  It gave her the "truth" to express her emotions and may be able to pursue a complex and unconventionally satisfying relationship with someone that no longer has any direct relation to her.  In this sense, she is honoring her mothers wishes.  But if Michal really is her father, then she is destroying the family unit by pursuing this line of fantasy, and what of Michal?  We have to question if it is fair to Anka that Michal pretended to be her father if he suspected otherwise.  His decision to either fake or express his interest afterward are dependent on if he really was her father, and if he knew this all along.

Traditional moral compasses do not belong in most of The Decalogue, but Four takes them to an entirely new plane of problematic signification.  Kieslowski doesn't waste a scene in bringing this question as the primary focus of the film.  He crams subtle visual clues about the true parentage of Anka in many shots, and is not skimpy on the visual symbolism as well as the psychological symbolism of the film.  At the beginning he keeps the relationship between Anka and Michal questionable so that we do not know if they are brother and sister, husband and wife, or father and daughter.  In fact, based on their playful "flirtation" at the beginning the father and daughter distinction seems the least likely.

But Kieslowski refuses to lay it all out for us.  We are treated to intriguing questions about family and desire that cannot be satisfactorily answered by the film.  It is unlikely that either of them will be the same once the story closes, and now that they have burned the letter neither will know the absolute truth.

Next week we have the fifth, and strong candidate for the best, Decalogue dealing with "Thou shalt not kill"

The Decalogue

One “I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me”
Two “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”
Three “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”
Five “Thou shalt not kill.”
Six "Thou shalt not commit adultery."
Seven "Thou shalt not steal."
Eight "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."
Nine "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors wife."
Ten "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors goods."

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Decalogue : Four (1988)

Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Written by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz.
Starring Daniel Olbrychski and Maria Pakulnis.

Posted by Andrew

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