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

"Remember the sabbath day,
to keep it holy"

In a sense, all holidays are carefully masked deceptions.  We use repetition and memory to selectively block out the history that the holiday is based on and enhance the factors that we want to remain.  Thanksgiving has been one of the shining examples of this and the spiritual aspects of Christmas are falling further and further behind owning more things.  We adopt our own deceptions as well.  Most choose to don mask that is only worn a couple of times a year to block out what offends or annoys and embrace what is good.

This is the central idea behind Decalogue: Three, and results in a film that is only partially related to its matching Commandment.  With the first two Decalogue films we can see clear parallels between the story and the moral message of the appropriate scripture.  But here it gets a lot trickier, and the parallels are not as clear as in the previous films.

As we open on Decalogue: Three a man dressed as Santa Claus gets out of a car and begins hauling a bag filled with presents towards the apartment complex all of our characters live in.  As he comes in he runs into the central character of the first Decalogue, Krzysztof, who is spending his first Christmas alone without his wife and son.  The two exchange a brief hello and the camera stays outside with Krzysztof as he watches the man go into his apartment and surprise his children.

It’s important that we stay outside with Krzysztof instead of going inside with the man.  Most of this Decalogue will be spent separating those that can don the appropriate deception that will bring happiness, and those who don’t realize that their lie has long run its course and bears nothing good.  The man, named Janusz (Daniel Olbrychski), chooses to lie about being Santa Claus to bring his family happiness.  This is the first of many roles he will play this Christmas Eve.

Leaving Janusz behind for the moment, Kieslowski cuts to a woman named Ewa (Maria Pakulnis) as she visits her aunt in an old folks home.  She is senile and only remembers Ewa as a younger child, wondering where Ewa’s lover is, and how her Arithmetic homework is going.  Ewa, like Janusz, plays a role for the happiness of someone else and pretends that she is that little girl again.  But unlike Janusz lie, this is only for the good of her aunt, and we see how much pain this causes Ewa.

Back at the apartment, Janusz is relaxing with his wife and receives a call on the phone.  It is actually Ewa on the other end, but Janusz lies about the call and says that someone is stealing his taxicab. Earlier that night Ewa and Janusz saw each other briefly in a church before Ewa left.  Having already pretended to be Santa Claus and a loving husband he now pretends to be the victim of a crime.  Ewa is waiting outside for him because she needs his help to find her husband, who has gone missing.

From this point on we follow Ewa and Janusz as they search through the Warsaw night looking for her lost lover.  We slowly find out that they had a brief affair three years ago, and broke it off when Ewa’s husband discovered the two of them together.  Ewa made a choice that day to go with her husband instead of staying with Janusz, and has been regretting that decision ever since.

It is here that the moral waters become very murky.  Ewa, hinted at many times throughout the night, has been without her husband for a very long time and is lying to Janusz just to keep him around for Christmas Eve.  Janusz realizes this very early on, but adopts multiple different personas over the course of the night to keep her lying to him.

He is one of the crueler characters Kieslowski presents in the series, even if it does not seem apparent at first.  He is happy with a family and home life, yet chooses to abandon all that on Christmas Eve so that he can agitate some old feelings with his former mistress.  Then, once with his onetime mistress, plays the role of friend, boyfriend, enemy, secret lover, and (finally) distant memory so that she is kept constantly off guard by his behavior.

The visual style that Kieslowski adopts for this story is a lot colder than in the previous two films.  While the story is still focused primarily on two individuals, the camera is constantly keeping them at arm’s length.  She watches him from afar, usually through a window, standing next to a Christmas tree or with some Christmas lights around him.  He is forever the unattainable family dream that has abandoned her.  The camera work is significantly more subtle this time around, and works well to emphasize the lies that keep them both away from happiness.

It’s not wrong for Janusz to want to help his old lover, but he does so until he can figure out what he can get from the night.  There is a moment in her apartment where he realizes that her husband has not lived with her for a very long time now and he moves in to kiss her, only to be interrupted by carolers.  Once he realizes that her husband is completely out of the picture he feels safe enough to try and have another affair with her, but is reminded of the family that he has at home through the carolers’ song.

In the end Ewa’s deception is revealed, Janusz goes home to his family, and Ewa leaves with the knowledge that she can no longer have her husband or her lover.  We are left pondering what Kieslowski wanted to say with this particular story.  It wasn’t fate that kept these two apart and busy searching for something that doesn’t exist.  They chose to honor their day of rest by lying and deceiving, attempting to get from the other something that doesn’t exist any longer.  The holy day is what you make of it, and what is important to some will not be as important (or even moral) to others.

An interesting story and idea, but the execution is not as strong as in other Decalogue films.  The ideas about fidelity, deception and family are put to a stronger test in the fourth and ninth stories.  In this one they feel more like intriguing concepts than a fully realized whole.  There are some puzzling decisions that Kieslowski makes regarding some of the events that take place.  A chase scene between Janusz and the police occurs that serves little to no purpose in the overall course of the story.  When you’ve only got about an hour to work with, killing three minutes on something like that destroys a lot of what the film is trying to accomplish.

There is also an effective bit of social commentary that intrigues but, again, serves little purpose in the overall arc of the film.  Janusz and Ewa, when they are still trying to find her husband, go to the jail to see if he has been picked up there.  They see that there are naked men stuck behind a chain link fence in a small, unheated, concrete room.  In case we miss the point Kieslowski is trying to make about their treatment, he has the overseer begin to spray them with cold water and laugh about their misfortune.

I normally like Kieslowski’s social commentary but here it just feels awkward and out of place.  His observations about the hospital and care flowed perfectly with the patient’s treatment in Decalogue: Two.  Here it just seems that he realized his story didn’t have the muscle that previous installments did and decided to throw in this bit of commentary to give the movie something else to work with.

Still, the third film does not entirely stumble and still leaves us with some intriguing thoughts.  We see how Janusz would have been happy regardless of Ewa’s, and observe how unfair that is to her.  He can spend his day of rest lying to everyone who loves him but it is she that has to go off into Christmas without anyone that knows or loves her.  A sobering thought from Kieslowski, who might not have made the best film, but certainly did not make a failure.

Next week I will be commenting on Decalogue: Four, “Honor thy father and thy mother”, that asks some complicated questions about the relationship between fathers and daughter.

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"
Four "Honor thy father and thy mother"
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 : Three (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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