The 1994 Three Colours: White is the second part of Kieślowski's Three Colours trilogy. The titular three colours allude to the motto of the French Revolution: liberty (blue), equality (white), and fraternity (red). It’s no coincidence that the only part of the trilogy which took place in Poland is devoted to the ideal of equality.
By reflecting upon one of the most fundamental values of modern civilization, Kieślowski talks about the Polish inferiority complex and desperate attempts to equal wealthier societies. White, set in the realities of the systemic transformation of 1989, goes beyond the social plane and is another link in the chain of the director’s universal discourse on the human condition in the contemporary world.
The opening shot of the film shows a huge suitcase on a luggage conveyor carousel. As it later turns out, the contents of the bag are rather bizarre – it’s Karol Karol (performed by Zbigniew Zamachowski), a Pole who has neither passport nor money, but is in possession of a stolen plaster bust of a woman. He is trying to make his way from France to Poland. Karol left his homeland to participate in international hairdressing contests some time before. He was a success abroad – not only did he prove that he was the best in his trade, but also got married to an attractive Frenchwoman, Dominique (Julie Delpy). Nevertheless, the talented hairdresser instantly loses everything he has gained. When he starts having trouble with potency, his wife files for divorce, wins the case, and ruins Karol financially. Humiliated, Karol goes back to Poland in a suitcase and moves in with his overprotective brother, Jurek (Jerzy Stuhr), with whom he used to run a hairdressing salon. Contrary to his former business partner’s requests, Karol has no intention of working as a hairdresser anymore, as he wants to start his own company to make a pile of cash as quickly as possible. The objective of all this is to trick Dominique, whom he loves even more than before, into coming to Poland.
In White, personal and social humiliation are interwoven. When Karol fist appears on screen in the French sequence, the viewer initially gets to see only worn-out shoes and his ludicrous walk. The character clearly is out of place in the dignified surroundings. A moment later, when the man is climbing the stairs leading to the Parisian Palais de Justice and, smiling, fixes his eyes on a flying pigeon (this is one of the leitmotifs of the film), the bird suddenly relieves itself at him. Already in the first scene Kieślowski masterfully characterizes the tragicomic main character. It can be inferred that the impotency of the unattractive, unlucky hairdresser stems from his sense of inferiority towards the beautiful and stylish Frenchwoman. Karol is fiercely determined to get rich in Poland so that he regains his dignity and become his ex-wife’s equal. His ambitions coincide with the aspirations of the Polish society in the early 90s, a period marked by the systemic transformation and characterized by greed and venting long-standing complexes toward the Western world.
Karol becomes sexually functional only after he achieves material success. When he finally satisfies Dominique in bed, the screen gets filled with the colour white, which, as it seems, represents happiness and equality. This is very ironic – human relationships are based on dominance, not equality. As Kieślowski wrote in his autobiography:
This is a narrative about equality understood as negation. The notion of equality suggests that we are all the same. I don’t think this is true. Nobody truly wishes to be equal. Everybody wants to be more equal than others. (Krzysztof Kieślowski, O sobie)
Having acquired a fortune and become even with Dominique, Karol is not going to find happiness. From the very beginning, his friend and future business partner, Mikołaj (Janusz Gajos), whom he met in Paris, is a lot more conscious. He is an affluent card player who has everything Karol dreams of, and yet wishes to die.
White is set in concrete social circumstances most strongly among the films making up the trilogy. Kieślowski speaks about savage capitalism developing in Poland, full of self-proclaimed businessmen (such as the owner of a currency exchange bureau, performed by Cezary Pazura) making their fortunes semi-legally. Karol’s transformation into a ruthless entrepreneur is highly meaningful in this context. White cannot be treated as a fully realistic work, though. The critics have complained about the film’s seemingly illogical plot, the improbability of the featured psychological mechanisms, and its stereotypical representation of the fate of Polish noveau riche. These accusations are justified, but they stem from incomprehension of the convention: Kieślowski from the very begging claimed that White was going to be a comedy, but not an utterly funny one. No wonder the director uses synthesis, irony and humorous ellipsis. Beautiful cinematography by Edward Kłosiński, excellent acting and Kieślowski’s skillful directing make the second part of Three Colours one of the director’s best films.
Trois Couleurs. Blanc (Three Colours: White), France / Poland / Switzerland 1994. Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski, writing credits: Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Krzysztof Kieślowski. Cinematography by Edward Kłosiński. Music by Zbigniew Preisner. Production design by Halina Dobrowolska, Claude Lenoir, Magdalena Dipont. Cast: Zbigniew Zamachowski as Karol Karol, Julie Delpy as Dominique, Janusz Gajos as Mikołaj, Jerzy Stuhr as Jurek, Cezary Pazura as the owner of the currency exchange bureau, Jerzy Nowak as Chłop, and others.
Produced by Zespół Filmowy Tor, CAB Productions, France 3MK2 Productions.
Color, 91 minutes.
Author: Robert Birkholc, translated by: Natalia Sajewicz