Three Colors: White (1994)
Written by Krzysztof Kieślowski & Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski
There are multiple ways to look at the structure & its relation to the themes of the Three Colors trilogy. One of those is, of course, the three ideals of the French Revolution: liberté, égalité, fraternité. However, Krzysztof Kieślowski is intent on subverting our expectations about these concepts. Another is through the lens of a Europe that was in the process of being partially unified. Blue is about Western Europe, White is about Eastern Europe, and Red is set in the “neutral” nation of Switzerland. There are also mood associations with color. Blue tells the story of a woman who has lost her family (she feels “blue”). Red is about passion & love, which that color regularly symbolizes.
So what is White, then? Purity? White is associated with brightness, and this film is a comedy in many ways. Once again, Kieślowski understands what the audience expects to see in a comedy and isn’t going to deliver on that precisely. Blue was a tragedy that ended on a hopeful note. White will be a comedy that ends on a tragic note.
A love story ends. Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is a Polish barber who came to Paris from Poland with big dreams, met & married Dominique (Julie Delpy), and now she is leaving him. In court, she states that he failed to consummate the marriage and, therefore, she cannot love him. Karol is forced to use a translator as he doesn’t speak French fluently, and before he realizes the proceedings are over. The marriage has ended. Karol loses access to his bank accounts, passport, and even ownership of his salon. Dominique provides her now ex-husband with a suitcase of his possessions. There is a brief moment where it looks like they may do what could not be done in marriage, but Dominique is reminded she doesn’t love Karol. To make him leave, she sets fire to the curtains planning on blaming him. Karol flees and lives for a time as a beggar on the Metro.
Things get worse by the time Karol meets Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos), a fellow Pole living in Paris. Mikolaj feels pity for his countryman and offers him a job. Unfortunately, it is some criminal business, killing someone who has angered the mob. Karol just cannot do this. After it becomes clear that Dominique has moved on to a new man, Karol asks if Mikolaj can help him get back into Poland. By stuffing Karol in a suitcase can cross borders but is kidnapped by airport employees. Once they discover he is a pauper, Karol is abandoned in the Polish countryside. Eventually, he finds his way to Warsaw and is reunited with his brother, Jurek (Jerzy Stuhr), who runs a barbershop. And this is where Karol begins hatching a devious plan to amass wealth & some power to exact revenge on his ex-wife.
Eastern Europe in the early 1990s was similar to the American Wild West. There was little intentional oversight, and capitalism was able to flood the former communist countries leading to some brutal conditions. This was capitalism uncut & raw, a system where people didn’t hesitate to harm or even kill someone if it meant they climbed a bit higher on the economic ladder. This makes Karol an interesting character as he was clearly an individual who “escaped communism,” going to the West, where he imagined a life of luxury. Now he hobbles back home, assuming everything will be the same, only to find that the West has spread its ideology into Eastern Europe.
The film doesn’t spend much time remarking on how it came to be this way, but one exchange says it all. Karol is confused about the new Warsaw and says in passing to his brother, “You bought a neon sign.” Jurek replies dryly, “This is Europe now.” The remark reminds us that despite being the smallest of the continents, Europe was an intensely divided landmass for most of the late 20th century. In Blue, we have the formation of the European Union being briefly commented on, and here, without saying the EU’s name, we have two people acknowledging their homeland isn’t how they remembered it.
This is expanded in Karol’s rise to power as we are met with multiple scenes of vans loading goods onto and off them. Kieślowski agrees that Eastern Europe is corrupt in a brand-new way now, one in which cutthroat commerce is the game’s name. He is clearly more interested in the characters and their choices than in producing a didactic speech about the nature of the late 20th century, but he also knows you have to acknowledge Poland is a different beast now. By framing these events comedically, he softened the blow of how horrific it was living at this time.
That doesn’t mean he sees it as good; it’s a trademark irony Kieślowsk brought to his work, the subversion of tone. An American film, like Scarface, shows you a Cuban immigrant coming to America and his tragic downfall, all while making sure you know how big the dude’s dick is & that he is still awesome despite being a bad guy. White doesn’t pretend Karol is some cool connected guy; he’s just an opportunist doing what all the greedy people around him are doing. He doesn’t stand out even when he has a nice suit & fresh haircut.
The most political Kieślowski gets is early on in the film when Karol becomes frustrated over the direction of his divorce proceedings. He has an outburst: “Where is the equality? Is my not speaking French a reason for the court not to hear my argument?” If the theme of White is equality, then Kieślowski points out that if Europe is to be unified, then the prejudices that compose the borders between nations have to be struck down. France & Western Europe cannot claim to say they hold up equality as a principle and then subjugate their new EU brethren to second-class citizenship. The power Karol & Dominique holds is flipped depending on their location. Julie Delpy is the epitome of Frenchness and so is seen as in the right without much argument by the courts of her country. Under the seeming lawlessness of Poland. Karol has more power than his ex-wife when she eventually comes to his country. Is that the equality being spoken about in grandiose speeches from the West?
Dominique exists not just as the woman Karol married but as a concept which is why he cannot make love to her. It would be tainting her with his earthiness, his muddiness. She’s incorporeal, made even more evident by the state of things at the film’s end. She remains something he can only gaze up at, admire from a distance. It is an insane sort of equilibrium that is attained as they both appear happy. The circumstances are of course ironic, a situation none of us would see as optimal. But because of the twisted nature of power between men & women, Eastern & Western Europe, and the ideals spoken about constantly, this is the best we can get. Like the classical definition of comedy, there is a marriage of sorts; a couple is together and apart. The most Karol can do is place Dominique inside a jar which he will observe from time to time.
White is rife with doubles. Karol Karol. His name. The character of Karol is two different people throughout the film. His friend Mikolaj goes through a similar transformation. Objects appear in twos. Dominique is two people: the loud, angry woman from the trial and a more subdued figure. The last time we see Karol he looks slightly different, his appearance now is an amalgamation of his look while he lived in Paris and the persona he took on back in Warsaw. Europe is reunified, but it’s hard to know how you should feel. There are elements of serenity but also many disturbing implications. Equality is a bizarre thing if this is how it is defined.