Friday, June 17, 2011

Exploring Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy: White (1994)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Country: France/Poland/Switzerland

Sandwiched between the opulent Blue and the more elusive Red, White suffers to a degree from the “middle film syndrome” found so often in film trilogies. There are numerous possible reasons behind this specific case: it is a comedy (of sorts) amid two more deeply serious films, its titular hue doesn’t promise as much visual splendor as blue or red does, and it possesses a more surprising and quirky quality than what one might initially expect before viewing it. That final point partially stems from certain promotional images for the film focusing mainly on actress Julie Delpy. It makes sense in the context of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy and the marketing for it as a whole: three colors, three films, three lovely leading ladies (with Delpy joined by Juliette Binoche and Irène Jacob).

But as ideal as Julie may be as the face of White, it isn’t her film. Her character, Dominique, is important to the story, but she only appears for a small fraction of its screen time. Instead, the film’s real hero (or anti-hero) is Karol Karol, portrayed by the superb Zbigniew Zamachowski. We first see the Polish immigrant making his way to a Paris courthouse to the divorce hearing where Dominique, his soon-to-be-ex-wife, plainly states her intent to leave him due to his inability to consummate their marriage. From there, Karol’s luck very rapidly slips away from him: shut out of his home, he seeks shelter for the night at the beauty salon he formerly co-owned with Dominique. In the morning, she confronts him and, after one last chance for reconciliation passes by, cruelly kicks him out and threatens to bring the police down upon him. Poor Karol retreats to the Paris Métro where he plays a comical, kazoo-like instrument fashioned out of a comb for change. It is there where he meets a fellow Pole named Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos) with whom he quickly forms a bond of friendship and hatches a plan to transport himself back to Warsaw in a trunk. Despite an unplanned, uncomfortable detour, Karol triumphantly arrives back in his home country, reunites himself with his brother and finds work and a home in his hair salon. From there, Karol devotes himself almost single-mindedly to gaining money and power for himself, working with Mikolaj to form a campaign of revenge against Dominique.

As the above synopsis indicates, White is very much a narrative-driven film – certainly more so than Blue and Red. This can mainly be allotted to the twisty, constantly evolving nature of Karol’s trajectory. In this respect, the film could be compared to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or any other story in which the hero hoists him or herself out of dire straits using luck, pluck and ambition – these kinds of tales by design usually turn out to be incredibly engrossing, if only because of pure curiosity about where the character will end up next. Plus, it certainly helps when the central character is as fascinating to watch as Karol is. Somewhat resembling Tim Robbins, Zamachowski does a great job of portraying a highly sympathetic character who does not always do sympathetic things. Karol seems to scrape by with a built-in survival instinct, and carries himself with an odd mixture of meekness, shamelessness and charm even when placed in some particularly troubling predicaments. Just as interesting is his relationship with Dominique, the woman he continues to love even after she purposely torments him, even as he goes about preparing his plan against her.

Thus, Kieslowski presents us with a tragicomedy in the purest sense, masterfully balancing humorous moments with serious ones. Composer Zbigniew Preisner departs from the symphonic heights of Blue’s score to provide music that is noticeably lighter and springier, propelling us through Karol’s journey with an upbeat energy. Along the way, there are numerous scenes that openly invite serious considerations of love, life and happiness. If nothing else, White serves as possibly the most outright entertaining entry in the Three Colors trilogy; a fun yet thoughtful yarn that ably continues Kieslowski’s exploration of morality and human connection.

Also posted at Row Three.

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