Three Colours: White (Trzy kolory: Biały)
Poland/France (1994) Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski
The marriage between Polish hairdresser Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) and his French wife Dominique (Julie Delpy) ends in a very acrimonious divorce which sees Karol homeless, penniless, depressed and desperate to return to Poland. While busking on the underground a fellow Polish immigrant Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos) approaches Karol and offers him a way back home and the chance to earn some big money: all he has to do is kill someone. After finally arriving back in Poland, Karol sets about rebuilding his fortune while plotting his revenge against Dominique.
The second film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s much lauded Three Colours trilogy based on the ideology of the French revolution is a much lighter and often comedic affair in comparison to the heavy symbolism and emotional suffering of its predecessor Three Colours: Blue.
The presentation is much more straight forward with a more linear narrative, less arty shots and camerawork and little to no reliance on allusion and visual motifs, making it arguably more accessible than Blue for mainstream audiences but polarising for arthouse fans expecting something akin to the previous film.
The theme explored in this film is equality, although Kieslowski has chosen to define this in the form of revenge. It begins with Karol’s humiliating divorce from Dominique, on the grounds that marriage was never consummated, not to mention that Karol’s French is not that great. Despite his unwavering love for Dominique, she gets her way and he is slung out on his ear forced to become a beggar to survive.
Once back in Poland Karol, now staying with his brother Jurek (Jerzy Stuhr) is forced to continue to beg whilst doing a few hair dressing jobs on the side. He gets a job as a bodyguard for a small cash exchange office, silent observing the machinations of his employers and using that information to undercut them in the corrupt business dealings, earning himself a huge payday.
Now back on his feet, Karol hooks up with Mikolaj and sets up his own company whilst learning French – because the elaborate scam he has in mind will teach Dominique that paybacks and her have something in common.
Much like the previous film, we don’t know much about the characters’ backgrounds but we don’t really need to them as it is their present which shapes them. Karol is a very shy and timid individual and clearly loves Dominique while she is the opposite – with the suggestion she only married him for what she could get from him, then divorcing him, taking his money, his business, his home and leaving him penniless.
In one scene when Karol calls Dominique to try for another reconciliation she keeps him on hold so he can listen to her loudly making love to her latest beau! More comic hijinks ensue when Mikolaj’s masterplan to get Karol back into Poland is to smuggle him in inside a suitcase – one of the more credibility stretching moments of the film as the suitcase is passed around with relative ease by bagger handlers, until it is stolen by a few chancers who get the shock of their lives when they open the case!
It’s been said that Kieslowski slipped in some political allegory when depicting Karol’s rise from pauper to prince to reflect Poland’s attempts to become a more prominent financial force within Europe. Karol’s impotence while in France is symbolic as being back home sees him rise to being a *ahem* big man in business. Karol’s confidence – and ego – grows exponentially as his plans come to fruition, kicking off with outsmarting his employers with the purchase of some land and selling it to them at a huge profit thanks to some clever manipulation one would never had expected from the Karol we meet at the start of the film.
In keeping with colour of the film’s title featuring prominently on screen, white not only makes up the fairy tale wedding we see flashback shots of, along with the snowy covered locale Karol ends up in when deposited by the suitcase snatchers and the bust Karol steals from France and cherishes throughout. Also keep an eye out for a blink-and-you-miss it cameo from Juliette Binoche as Blue protagonist Julie, another recurring feature of Kieslowski’s.
With the nature of the film being considerably lighter than it predecessor, there is no killer performance like Binoche’s but that is not to undermine Zbigniew Zamachowski’s essaying of Karol, being the perfect physical embodiment of this unassuming loser as well as surprising us all with the way he effortlessly transform into sneaky capitalist Karol by the film’s end. Julie Delpy was a wise casting choice for looking like a chaste princess hiding a heart of stone underneath who gets hers in the end but with a last minute twist.
To be honest I enjoyed Three Colours: White more then Blue mostly as the focus was squarely on the story, meaning less reliance upon trying to be too deep and meaningful with all of the arthouse trappings which can make or break a film. Kieslowski seemed to be a lot more comfortable making this in his native language and in his homeland which also comes through when watching this film.
A nice contrast to Blue as much as it is a companion piece.