Trois couleurs: blanc

(Three Colors: White, Fra/Pol/Swiss/UK - 1993)

by Vanes Naldi & Mike Lorefice
6/25/05 (Vanes 7/01)

Cast: Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delpy, Janusz Gajos
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Director: Krzysztof Kiewlowski
Screenplay: Krzysztof Kiewlowski & Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Cinematography: Edward Klosinski
Composer: Zbigniew Preisner
Runtime: 91 minutes

VN: Considered the "worst" of Kieslowski's final gift to the art of filmmaking that was the Three Colors trilogy, "White" is probably the most underrated of the three. While the brilliance of the third film Red can't be disputed, and a lot of people consider "Blue" a really good film, there seems to be an argument over "White", perhaps because it's a comedy, and often balances the dramatic part with funny moments.

ML: I think White is actually overrated. Usually a film sandwiched between two masterpieces would be underrated because the expectations have been raised by the first masterpiece (and in Kieslowski's case Blue wasn't even up to the standards of his two previous works The Double Life of Veronique and his near 10-hr opus Dekalog), and even though a good film better than what most other directors put out, the first comparison is almost always going to be to what the director himself has put out. Red is an all-timer, and if I were making a top 10 of the 90's I'd at least give strong consideration to Veronique and Blue. White is a good film, and one I've watched more than most, but I feel it's lacking some of the strong points of Kieslowski's other 90's films.

You mention it doesn't get the credit because it's a comedy. While part of my problem is I don't find it to be funny, the bigger issue is the shift from drama to comedy puts more distance between audience and characters. The reason Kieslowski stopped making documentaries is he wanted to achieve an intimacy he didn't feel right about exposing in actual individuals. After all, they had to go on being that person after his intrusion and he has a lot more heart than executives cashing in on superficreality TV do. Though Kieslowski still employs the same method of filming, working with one or two people and having himself and his cameraman almost on top of them, White doesn't approach the level of intimacy he achieved in Veronique or the other portions of the trilogy. In part that's duo to his wishing us to laugh at Karol getting choked by his own barber equipment, but also because it's the most plot oriented of the bunch. There seems to be too much going on that doesn't bring us any closer to understanding the characters, they seem to keep changing rather than to be refined because their individuality was never really established.

VN: The theme of the film is "equality", a word Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), the main character, seems to demand. The road that leads to the achievement of that equality he's looking for involves revenge, grief, love lost and regained. It involves how funny life can be sometimes. One day you're a reject, ready to be treated like dirt, like a homeless person, ready to accept charity from other people, ready to stoop to the "lowest" level and perform for money at a station. The day after, you're a rich businessman, leading a successful company and providing jobs for other people.

ML: The equality of the film is bringing some people up and down, and ultimately not much is gained. Karol's plot to gain this newly promised financial equality costs him what he actually wanted, which is for his (now ex) wife to love him (that's not entirely true due to the tacked on ending). It's also shown in the background, where Poland's change to capitalism allows different people (including Karol) to prosper but they also don't give back to society so the country as a whole remains a rundown place that's only good for a small elite. . Part of the problem is Kieslowski can't seem to make up his mind about capitalism. There's really little redistribution of wealth just a shift from party leaders to business owners and of course the party leaders are likely to be the ones with the money to become the business owners, but Kieslowski focuses on the individual and though he seems to be making a film that instructs us to keep our boner for our wife rather than for paper, he undermines all that with his cop out ending and practically winds up with a super crapitalistic orgy worthy of all the so called liberals in Hollyplastic.

VN: The film opens with Polish Karol and his French wife Dominique (Julie Delpy), and their divorce hearing in a French court. She doesn't want to live with him anymore because, among other things, he's sexually unacceptable, so much they haven't had sex since the day they married. He says he was able to fulfill her sexual "requests" back in Poland, but then something happened, and they grew apart. They grew apart so much Dominique wants to strip her husband of everything: money, his house, his job, even his dignity. He still loves her like the first day, and can't understand why she'd do something like this to him, who always loved her.

ML: One of the references to the title white is that a white marriage is another way of saying one that wasn't consummated. Karol's impotency in France can be seen as a metaphor to Poland's in Europe. He just seems overwhelmed in France, like he's been called up to the majors and now he's out of his depth. Part of his problem is, like Kieslowski, his grasp of the French language is limited.

VN: Due to French divorce laws that leave the foreigner with nothing, Karol goes from a virtuous hairdresser who won several international prizes and accolades to a Metro beggar. He tries to ask her wife to speak to him again, via phone, and all she can do is to let him hear her sexual performances with another man. All she wants is sex, seemingly.

ML: Unlike in Blue and Red where the lead is a female and eventually very well defined, Dominique is a very secondary character that is hard to define. There's no set of rules for the character, no consistency even in her inconsistency. She's half loose cannon and half just different in every scene. Delpy says on the DVD extras that Kieslowski asked her how she envisioned the character and she said like the cat she had as a child that was in heat even after it had been knocked up, which Kieslowski thought sounded good. That cat doesn't sound worth the hassle, and that's the way the character comes off as well. Though Delpy is typically excellent in individual scenes, her character is too sketchy for her overall performance to rate with the standouts in Blue and Red or with her own great work in the masterpieces of Richard Linklater.

VN: Irony strikes as he finds a friend in the Metro, a polish immigrant as well, who starts asking him questions. He's charming, well educated, well dressed. He seems like a gentleman, but like everybody else, he's looking for something. He wants to help Karol to get back to Poland, and even offers him a job that would get him some much needed money. He knows a man, with wife and kids, very wealthy, who has lost interest in life, to the point he wants to die, but is not brave enough to do so, and doesn't want his family to believe he wanted to kill himself. Karol doesn't like the idea, but thanks to this new friend is able to return to Poland, in a pretty unusual way.

Devoid of any passport, document or money, Karol puts his suitcase to new use, hiding in Mikolaj's (Janusz Gajos) luggage, hoping to get past authorities and make it back to Poland. He will make it, but not in the way you expect it. There, he finds new life, reuniting with his brother Jurek (Jerzy Stuhr), and helping him with his hairdressing shop while figuring out and executing shady angles to get rich that begin by working as a bodyguard for a black market agent.

He meets again his friend Mikolaj, and asks him if the job he proposed him back in France was still available, and he accepts it. This leads probably to the most touching moment of the film, with Karol doing his job, and learning things about himself and life.

ML: Most revenge films are just worthless, at least since the attitude changed from the person taking revenge being an obsessed nut that was no better than the people that had wronged him (films like Anthony Mann's brilliant The Naked Spur or Henry King's The Bravados) to the greatest good crimefighters/vigilantees portrayed by Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and when things got really sick and exploitive Robert Ginty. White doesn't appear to be a revenge film until the very end. And only in a Kieslowski revenge film would you find a "hero" that not only isn't responsible for any death, but actually finds a way to save the life of a man that thinks he wants to die and creates a friendship.

The scene where Karol shoots Mikolaj is expertly done. Like Spike Lee later found success with during the beating scene in his masterpiece 25th Hour, the key to the scene is cutting the soundtrack. Kieslowski became one of the greatest at utilizing music, unlike Lee who is often a perpetuator of aural torture at the detriment of anyone being able to focus on his drama, but what he doesn't get enough credit for is knowing when to utilize quiet.

VN: The plot smartly follows up building Karol's attempt to get "equality", to get his revenge, to finally achieve his goal. The way the story moves forward is incredibly involving, with the use of interesting plot twists and ironic resolutions. While the film has still a heavy, dramatic feeling to it, there are some exquisite, hilarious moments that underline the irony of what Karol is trying to achieve.

ML: White is a film about humiliation. Judging by what's on TV these days from most of the superficreality shows to the freak shows like Howard Stern, Jerry Springer, & WWE that want to come off as rebel but actually just spread the porn industry brand of conformist fear, people are supposed to find this stuff hilarious. More importantly, since all of the aforementioned is just packaged corporate rebellion fed to us to fill their pockets on us destroying our bodies and more importantly distract us from mounting any actual rebellion like the rights movements of the '60's to me it's just another sad and cruel waste. White doesn't stoop to the level of any of the aforementioned dreck, and certainly isn't as basic as their artificial looks good, natural legs baaad formula, but that also makes it kind of work against itself. Kieslowski is a moralist like Bunuel, but he doesn't have his cruel streak and that may be necessary to do a really effective film about humiliation.

What Kieslowski does is ask us to identify with the humiliatee. In the days when understanding people that were different was promoted in film instead of politically correct fear (though Fear TV, I mean the news outside of the horribly underfunded versions on public TV, is far worse for creating the call them African Americans but hide anything shiny mentality since that's great for selling guns, home security systems, et all) and all the products and surgeries to make everyone clones, Lon Chaney was the top star in Hollywood. Chaney's popularity was based on his portrayal of the physically and emotionally disfigured characters that never got the woman, all of which have been completely marginalized (the screen versions of classic novels like Quasimodo the Hunchback and Erik the Phantom) if not totally forgotten (like Phroso 'Dead Legs' and my favorite Alonzo the Armless). I think the appeal of Chaney and Karol is similar, this is a rare character that people can relate to in some way rather than the usual idealized this is who you are supposed to dream of being archetype. The difference between a Chaney character and Karol is when Chaney's HE does his routine (in He Who Gets Slapped) where he is slapped repeatedly it's not supposed to be hilarious even though any time Chaney does a circus act it's tremendous. HE's situation was similar, he was betrayed by a lover so he's escaped into a life of self humiliation, but the film is a tragic drama (as most of Chaney's were, even if they were categorized as horror). Kieslowski's film is also dark and sad, but the point is if you feel for Karol like you are supposed to than shouldn't that make it tough to laugh at him like a pathetic loser? Kieslowski says we laugh because Karol's in the horrible situation, not us. That's so true of human nature in life, and works in documentary, but since I don't buy the situation and it's not so funny it doesn't matter, I recoil.

VN: This is the most accessible of the Trilogy, but only because the plot moves forward in a pretty conventional (I'm talking technically, not about content) way, but to understand the film properly, and its message, you need to pay attention to the little hints the director gives throughout the film.

ML: There's not as much going on technically in White. It's as if the Krystof's have burdened themselves with too much story, and thus Kieslowski doesn't have the time to tell it in as interesting a manner. The key technical point of the film is the initial crosscutting between Karol and a suitcase on a station convey belt, but actually the point is not the technique simply that Kieslowski trusts his audience can wait 20 minutes for the scenes payoff.

VN: The film highlights the fact that when we try to reach a certain "equality", we always wind up going an extra mile because of our selfishness. Karol's final victory is a little bit more than revenge, a bit more than a search for equality, as he completely pays back everything that has been done to him. In a way, the film is as much about selfishness as it is about equality. The things are inevitably connected because of man's inner nature, to always look out for himself first.

ML: One of the accomplishments of the trilogy is it's ability to show the perilous line between ideas and qualities we hold dear and those we look down upon, between human ideals and human nature. I'm sure Piesiewicz's background as a judge played a big part.

VN: The cinematography obviously focuses on white, and while it's not visually imposing as what you can see in "Blue", it works effectively to convey the message. The fact white is not a color and thus doesn't stand out as much as Blue or Red might induce some people to think the visuals were "weaker" than what we had seen before and after White.

ML: You just can't do as much with White as you could with Blue & Red. The objects are still there to remind us of White, but that's mainly background. You need to film in black and white to do artistic white lighting, otherwise white just looks like the standard. What White has going for it color wise is the casting of Julie Delpy, seemingly one of the last actresses that hasn't given in and bought her skin cancer so she could look like every other "white" actress. The pale goodness of Delpy is exploited by the lighting in ways that it couldn't be with the million actresses that are seemingly trying out for One Color: Brown so Hollywood can avoid casting their token minority actress that after all the artificial ruination is indistinguishable from the "white" actresses anyway. All that being said, the most beautiful shot in the film is when Delpy is lying on the bed partially covered by a red sheet.

VN: There's also a good portrayal of the difference between France and Poland, of the place Karol feels as home. The most interesting thing about this film though is how Kieslowski subtly adds elements, touches, that let us understand his feelings about this New Poland, with the witty references to post Solidarnosc society, to the fact "everything can be bought in Poland", to the fact a man can make a business out of illegality and screwing other people. It's like a cry for something Kieslowski will never be able to see, to a society he was so familiar with disappear, in a way.

ML: I'm not sure how sad Kieslowski is to see the old society go, but he doesn't seem as optimistic about the new society as he is in most other areas. Part of his point seems to be that the spread of wealth parallels the spread of corruption. So while it's good that the wealth won't be as consolidated, many formerly honest people like Karol will now be corrupted. What Karol is looking for, a cure to his loneliness that's caused by his ex-wife's indifference, as usual, can't be bought.

VN: The acting is very strong, starting from Zamachowski's portrayal of Karol. He's able to convey the passion that drives him mad, to the point he forgets about love and goes ahead, crosses the line to achieve self fulfillment. The scene when Karol hides to look at his wife's reaction at his funeral tells more than 1000s words. Zamachowski has one of those faces, like Robert De Niro or Sean Penn that are able to convey a state of mind without using dialogue. At first he looks like a scared puppy, in a world where he doesn't belong, a world he doesn't understand. Gradually, he gains confidence, goes past his insecurity, and he becomes a consummate businessman. The look in his eyes when he comes out of the Volvo is the same of those gangsters, of those mobsters who know they're powerful, who have confidence in their actions, who know they're someone.

ML: Zamachowski is not as over the top as most "comedic" performances, but one of the keys to the greatness of Blue and Red were the very subtle and understated performances of Binoche & Trintignant. Zamachowski just seems to be trying to hard.

VN: Julie Delpy, in a very good performance, highlights her character more as an icon than a person. She's Karol's love at first, then she becomes his instrument for revenge. She gives a passionate performance, but is probably underused since Dominique's role, as I said, is more of an image, than a person. She penetrates Karol's thoughts, and completely obsesses him. Probably the most overlooked performance of the film is from Karol's brother Jurek, played by Jerzy Stuhr: he's warm, always ready to give a hand to his brother, and has that familiar, melancholic look that make us connect with the character. Janusz Gajos is also excellent as Karol's friend Mikolaj.

ML: Gajos gives the best performance because he's able to convey so much without words. He's interesting because he's not very expressive, but there always seems to be something going on in his head. He's a mysterious character that, like the judge in Red, almost seems an imaginary figure there to provide guidance.

VN: This is the weakest of the trilogy, but that's a compliment already. It's a great black comedy about the irony of life, and follows Kieslowski sociological path he wanted to convey and portray with this trilogy. An excellent look at human character, at how selfishness can even surpass love.


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