Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ‘Trzy kolory: Biały’ (1994)

12Jan09
Zbigniew Zamachowski in 'White'

The second film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy, White follows Karol Karol (that’s not a typo), a hairdresser from Poland whose French wife divorces him, seemingly because they have not had sex since their marriage. Without a job or a place to stay, Karol resorts to playing music on his comb in a train station, where he befriends a fellow Polish citizen named Mikolaj who helps smuggle him back into Poland. Upon his return to his home country, Karol sets out to earn money and become a successful businessman. Once he has established a sizable estate, he fakes his death and leaves all of his assets to his ex-wife, Dominique. When Dominique returns to her hotel after attending his funeral, she finds Karol in her room where she admits that she still loves him and they make love. Karol leaves the next morning just before the police arrive to question Dominique about the suspicious circumstances of Karol’s death.

At the end of the film, Karol, who lives in secrecy with his brother, visits Dominique who has been imprisoned on suspicion of his “murder”, which is how Karol and Dominique finally achieve equality, symbolized by the color white on the French flag. Both of them have been removed from society and stripped of rights: she by her status of being an imprisoned “criminal” and he by his status of being “dead”. As with Blue, Kieslowski and Piesiewicz use the concept that they are exploring in an unexpected way. However, while they ultimately dismiss their re-imagined concept of liberty, Kieslowski and Piesiewicz suggest that Karol and Dominique have a real chance at mending their relationship once they have achieved this different idea of equality.

Watching White immediately after Blue can be a bit of a jolt. The tones and main characters could not be more different. White is very much a comedy, though a dark one. Zbigniew Zamachowski turns in a nicely balanced and at times almost Chaplinesque performance as Karol, able to make slapstick moments like being shit on by a bird both funny and a little heartbreaking. He also goes from those moments of broader humor to tongue-in-cheek moments, like when Karol exclaims “Home at last!” after being beaten up by disappointed thieves who stole the suitcase he uses to smuggle himself into Poland. Zamachowski always goes for a smile or a giggle rather than a big laugh, which perfectly fits the tone of the film.

Zbigniew Zamachowski & Janusz Gajos in 'White'

The aura of Julie Delpy’s character Dominique hovers over the film’s proceedings as Karol tries to both get back and get back at his ex-wife; however, Dominique only appears in about 15 minutes of the 91-minute running length. Delpy is the perfect actress to be the blond, alabaster-skinned beauty of Karol’s dreams, and it’s a testament to her performance that Dominique is such a powerful presence in the film despite her brief screen time. In fact, I really want to see more of Dominique. I want to know more about a woman who sets fire to her own beauty salon to get her ex-husband to leave, who makes Karol listen to her have sex with another man when he calls her one night. She is like a very beautiful cat who will purr and rub against your legs but scratch you if you try to pick her up.

Even though I tell myself to pay more attention to how Kieslowski uses white in this film, after two viewings I still haven’t made very good observations about the color symbolism. Perhaps it’s just the nature of the color white, but I don’t find it as noticeable as, say, red or blue. However, the instances in which Kieslowski uses white that I have noticed do seem to relate to moments when people attain equality: sharing the simple pleasure of sliding across a frozen lake on a sunny day, a wedding day, sex that reaches orgasm. The one tricky white object that I’m still mulling over is the statue that Karol brings with him to Poland. Obviously, the statue reminds him of Dominique and acts as her placeholder, and a reminder of Dominique for the audience, while they are in separate countries. Perhaps the statue is a representation of Dominique with which Karol has equality at that time? It doesn’t matter that Karol can’t communicate with or can’t give pleasure to the statue because the statue cannot do those things for him either. And it won’t ridicule him for his “deficiencies” as Dominique would.

Kieslowski also includes several images of voyeurism throughout the film, however the voyeurism seems more benign than its presentation in most films.

While I mean this comment as no disparagement to the film, White doesn’t quite feel like it is part of Three Colors to me, probably because of its much lighter tone and male lead. The film also doesn’t feel as tightly made as Red and Blue — sometimes it seems as though a scene or two has gone missing. However, White is certainly an enjoyable film with very fine performances by Zbigniew Zamachowski and Julie Delpy and, as is to be expected from Kieslowski, a unique presentation of a familiar concept.

Julie Delpy in 'White'
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