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Three Colors:  WhiteThree Colors White

(French/Polish, 1994, 91 minutes, color, 16mm)
(In French and Polish with English subtitles)

Directed by Krzystof Kieslowski


Zbigniew Zamachowski . . . . . . .. . . Karol Karol
Julie Delpy . . . . . . . . . . Dominique
Janusz Gajos . . . . . . . . . . Mikolaj
Jerzy Stuhr . . . . . . . . . .Jurek

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

Von Stroheim’s GREED, Gance’s NAPOLEON, Syberberg’s OUR HITLER, Andy Warhol’s SLEEP. Like his own huge multi-film project DECALOGUE, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s mammoth trilogy THREE COLORS stands alongside these other epics of obsession; sweeter and more humane, yes, but no less insistent on its own fetishes, and the power of desire to rot the soul. Each segment is a full-length film in itself, yet each loosely stands for an ideal associated with a single color in the French tricolor flag—red for liberty, white for equality, and blue for fraternity. Each of these concepts is strained through Kieslowski’s utterly unique sensibility. As a Pole working in France, he uses the mores of his adopted country to look back on his native Poland, a country undergoing massive social change. In WHITE, equality refers to the anxious quest for social, political, and emotional parity between the sexes. The color white runs throughout the film; there are white cars, snow, and fades to white. But don’t bother looking for some snap Freshman English accounting of this alabaster network of symbols, for Kieslowski is no Oliver Stone. He is both reticent and playful in the associations his mise-en-scene makes to the "real world." Cinematographer Edward Klosinki’s camera work is lavish, yet subtle, and between the two of them, Kieslowski and Klosinki make the "real world" abate, and pull back, in favor of a mysterious landscape of fear and desire.

"Liberte, egalite, fraternite." These are among the most hopeful and ambitious of all national mottos. From the opening moments of the film, when a rebellious pigeon makes its own political statement, it’s clear that Kieslowski’s investigation of social custom will uncover little that is holy, and much that is profane. His encyclical on gender equity arrives with a distinctively Gallic smirk, and the irony that characterizes postwar Polish culture, from its theater of the absurd to its grotesquely eloquent poster art. WHITE begins as a dirty joke, and ends as a plea for selfhood.

"Karol" (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a hapless hairdresser, faces ruin in an ugly divorce case based on his frustrating impotence. No matter how much he and his estranged wife, "Dominique" (Julie Delpy), try, they can’t seem to restore Karol’s, uh, enthusiasm. It’s Paris, says Karol, that has caused him to lose his ardor. Now, if they were home in Poland. . . Soon, Karol’s circumstances are further lowered, literally. We find him as a street musician, scrabbling in the Metro for coins, when, finally, it appears he is rescued. An opportunity presents itself to return to Poland.

However, there is a hitch. There always is with Karol, a likeable schlemiel hero who owes quite a bit to the Buster Keaton of SHERLOCK, JR., and the Jack Lemmon of THE APARTMENT, and even something to the Jerry Lewis/Harry Langdon/Pee Wee Herman school of frozen infancy. But Karol’s ability to stagger gamely to his feet after getting knocked on the head again and again, each time with an idiot’s world-proof grin on his face, is perhaps most reminiscent of Chaplin’s squirrely Everyman. (Kieslowski has said that he named the character after Chaplin, and the film’s ending is straight out of CITY LIGHTS.) This is, after all, a man who is able to greet his arrival in a smelly municipal dump with rapture, and play a comb and tissue paper concerto in the Paris underground with such weeping melodrama that he seems for a moment like the Fritz Kreisler of the subways.

Karol is asked to take something very personal of his in his luggage on the trip, and thereby hangs the rest of this pathological Odyssey. Gangsters, battered corpses, and errant luggage each play a part in Kieslowski’s shaggy-dog surrealism. Poland, though, for all its grimy oddity, is the place where Karol belongs. In retrospect, France, like Dominique, seems sleek and cold, attractive but never satisfying.

Equality in WHITE turns out to mean a bitter psychological stasis, a Cold War of the emotions, more than a joyous collaboration. Kieslowski wondered after completing his trilogy, "Do people really want liberty, equality, fraternity?" Like each of the other Big Ideas in the THREE COLORS trilogy, the ambitious hopes of the French national motto in WHITE are drowned in the gore and rigidified passions of the French Revolution.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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