DVD Review Of White
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/28/06
The middle film of Polish-French film director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors (Trois Couleurs) trilogy of Blue, White, and Red is a very black comedy, and generally considered the weakest of the three films. This is true, although, given the high quality of the tercet, White (Blanc) is still an excellent film, and compared with the mind-numbing comedies that Hollywood regularly cranks out, it is exceptional. And, at a mere hour and a half, this 1994 film never drags on too long. However, one of the major misconceptions about the film and its hero, Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski)- literally Charley Charley, is that he is a Chaplinesque figure. I believe that the many critics who use this term intend it as a high compliment, as they reference the greatest of the silent era screen stars, Charlie Chaplin, and his character of The Tramp. But, in doing so, they show how little they understand of the character and its portrayer.
There is a range of emotion that The Tramp shows in both the short subjects and feature films he appears in that none of the actors whose performances have subsequently been compared with his have displayed. There have never been moments the equal of the roll dance in The Gold Rush, nor the ending of City Lights, where the blind girl realizes her seemingly rich benefactor is The Tramp, nor the scenes of modernity run amok in Modern Times, nor the dance with the globe in The Great Dictator. This is not to demean any of the later performances, for some, such as Giulieta Masina’s role as Gelsomina in Federico Fellini’s La Strada, or that of Zamachowski in White are excellent, but none rally come close to that Chaplinesque mix of lightheartedness and dark pathos. Karol, as example, is a far more dismal and dark character than any played by Chaplin. Right from the start there is something ‘off’ about him. In Hollywood a character like his might end up a serial killer or child molester.
As white symbolizes equality in the French flag’s three colors, the champion hairdresser Karol spends the bulk of the film plotting revenge upon his beautiful blond French hairdresser ex-wife Dominique Vidal (Julie Delpy). In short, equality to him means ‘getting even’, for, as the film starts, we are in a French courtroom where Dominique is suing him for divorce for failing to consummate the marriage. Karol is sexually impotent in Paris, yet we never quite understand the depth of loathing the duo have for each other. This ellipsis in the opening is important, for it lends an aura to the characters that a pedestrian explanation would drain, and the whole start has two other important points to make. First, it contrasts itself with a scene of a trunk on an airport conveyor belt that we will later see is Karol’s ticket back to Poland- as his passport has been lost; and secondly it allows for the crossover shot of Julie (Juliette Binoche) from Blue, accidentally entering the courtroom in the back, as she is looking for her dead husband’s mistress, who works at the courthouse.
As he entered the courthouse, Karol was shat upon by a pigeon, and as he leaves it he is penniless, and tormented by Dominique, when she sexually humiliates him at the salon they own, after she finds he has slept there. Soon, he is homeless, and using tissue paper to play tunes on a comb in the Paris Metro. This is where he encounters a rich expatriate Pole named Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos), a bridge player, who gives one of the great supporting performances I’ve seen in a long while. He is a seemingly laconic man, also with a mysterious past, who offers to bring Karol back to Poland. He also offers him a job to kill a rich suicidal man who has not the guts to take his own life. Karol refuses, but they concoct the plan to take him back in the trunk. The two men bond in the Metro, and when Karol points up to Dominique’s apartment, they see the outlined figure of her with a lover. Karol is again degraded, as he has been in the whole film by a series of small moments. Even worse, Karol’s trunk is stolen from the airport in the newly De-Communized Poland. The thieves beat him up, and toss him and the alabaster bust of a beautiful woman that he bought, reminiscent of Dominique, into the dump they drove out to. It is full of snow and dirt, but at least Karol is in his native land again.
He makes it back to his brother’s small salon, limping and bloody, and Jurek (Jerzy Stuhr; who played Zamachowski’s brother in the tenth episode of The Decalogue) takes him in, and gives him his old job as a hairdresser. Totally beaten and humiliated by one thing after another, Karol turns to a local thug, and ends up beating him and an associate at a real estate scheme. He could only do so when he got the money to invest by finding Mikolaj and agreeing to kill the man who wanted to die. It turns out the man was Mikolaj himself, but Karol shoots a blank bullet first- the blank symbolic of both the film’s French title and his impotence, and Mikolaj decides he wants to live, yet pays Karol anyway. This further cements their friendship.
Having left France just after Christmas, by the next Christmas Karol has seen his real estate scheme pay off, and offers Mikolaj the opportunity to go into business with him. He also plots an intricate revenge plot against his ex-wife, as payback for her humiliations of him, at the court, in the salon, and when she orgasmed on the telephone, with a lover, when he last called her there. She later hung up on him when he called from Warsaw. He ends up buying a Russian corpse, fakes his death, with the help of his car driver, Mikolaj, and his brother, he makes Dominique the sole beneficiary of the will, and completes the frame-up when she comes to Paris. He sees her cry at his funeral, through binoculars, and then seduces her when she gets back to her hotel, as she is grateful he is alive, and regrets her wronging him. Perhaps the best cinematographic shot of the film is when Delpy is lying on the bed nude, under a red silken sheet. Her pale skin is absolutely stunning in the composition, in great contrast to the ultra-tanned carcinoma-begging actresses that Hollywood routinely serves up. Many of the plot details, however, are nonsensical, but seemingly explained away by the ability of the nouveau riche in Poland being able to bribe their way to any outcome desired. This semi-political commentary meshes nicely with the blackness of the film’s humor. Also, comedies do not entail the same fidelity to reality that dramas do.
At film’s end we see Karol is back to living with his brother, seemingly poor, for he cannot reveal he is still alive, yet seemingly bribes his way into the jail where Dominique is being kept, and brings her jam and bread. He looks at her through binoculars, and sees her see him. She makes some hand gestures that seem to be seen by most critics as her wanting them to be together after she is freed. This is not clear, though, and likely just an imbuement. There is more than one interpretation to what she is motioning, and if she really sees him at all, or if this is just his fantasy, again.
Kieslowski filmed this ending months after primary shooting ended, for he wanted a more upbeat end. Yet, neither party is free- she is in jail, he is ‘dead’, and their love is perverse, to say the least. Because the two characters are seen at the end of the final film in the trilogy, Red, critics suggest that this film’s ambiguous ending is merely foreshadowing. Perhaps, but seen as a stand alone film the ending is a downer, and the tears that Karol weeps at film’s end, unlike Julie’s lone tear at the end of Blue, seems insincere. Also, the very fact that the Kieslowski filmic universe allows for perfect doppelgangers (see The Double Life Of Veronique) makes us realize that the seeming Karol and Dominique we see at the end of Red may not be the two characters we know from this film. Or, the fact is that White could take place after Red. Also, the two main characters are not seen together on the ferry, so they could merely be still playing a game of one upsmanship, whatever the time frame.
The acting in White is first rate. I’ve commended the great job done by supporting actor Gajos, and his is one of those faces that can act with a twitch or the gleam of an eye alone. Zamachowski and Delpy are almost as good in their roles. He as the clownish rogue and she as the bitch with the angelic mien. One never senses, however, that Karol is the Chaplinesque innocent he pretends to be, so his turn to the dark side, at film’s end, is in perfect tune with his character. This is a difficult sort of role for any actor to do. Delpy’s role is smaller and easier, but it still is satisfying. She retains a vulnerability that is identifiable, another difficult task, especially since her role could easily have been that as the mere symbolic goddess of this man’s life.
White was written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and it lacks much of the visual poesy of the other two films. Simply put, the cinematography by Edward Klosinski is pedestrian compared to that in Blue, by Slavomir Idziak. But, this is forgivable since this film is plot driven, not character and mood based. That said, the tango music score by Zbigniew Preisner is every bit as comically effective as his Classical music score of Blue was dramatically apropos. That the tango is a dance where the male leads is very slyly worked into this tale where the male comes out ahead. The other two films are female oriented. Death and rebirth play manifest symbolic roles in the film, but not too heavily. Yet, White does feature other symbolic moments, such as another old lady trying to stuff a bottle into a recycling bin, just as in Blue. Karol smiles at her struggles whereas Julie was oblivious to them. Whereas Blue makes use of literal blackouts at moments of Julie’s confronting her past, White has some whiteouts- one during Dominique’s orgasm (which is far more realistic than Meg Ryan’s more famed fake in When Harry Met Sally….). More importantly, it has a few flash forwards, or flashbacks, to scenes of Karol and Dominique exiting a church after they are married. Whether a memory or fantasy is never shown. Also, where Julie takes a blue mobile as the only memento from her estate’s home in Blue, Karol takes only his alabaster bust with him to Poland, and even repairs it after it is broken when he and it are tossed into the dump. There are some wonderful moments it provides, such as the scene where Karol kisses it, both silhouetted against the night. In another scene he is dreaming of Dominique as the bust looks down upon him.
The DVD of White is part of a three pack put out by Miramax films, and the extras on White are a bit better than those on Blue. The film is subtitled in English, but one would have hoped that for the DVD three pack dubbed versions of the films could have been included. There is a featurette called ‘A Look At Blanc’, a film on Kieslowski’s later years, one on working with Kieslowski, a cinema lesson by Kieslowski on the film’s opening scenes, and a few other interviews and behind the scenes features. Most notably there is an interview with Julie Delpy, and her commenting on several selected scenes. There are also three interesting student films that Kieslowski made: Trolley, The Office, and The Face.
There is also an audio film commentary by Kieslowski scholar Annette Insdorf, seen in many of the interview segments throughout the DVD three pack. In this film she’s not nearly as pedantic, condescending, and flat out annoying as in her commentary for Blue. This is probably because White is a comedy, therefore lighter and less symbolic and artistic. Unfortunately, while Insdorf does not annoy as much as in the previous film’s commentary, she does have a condescending streak that cannot be ignored, such as going on and on about the obvious, such as the meaning of Karol Karol’s name, the whiteness of pigeon shit, the many times Karol is humiliated in the first half of the film, and the time line of the film. The fact is that, compared to Blue and Red, White is by far the most transparent (or perhaps translucent) film in the trilogy, and much of Insdorf’s commentary is therefore superfluous. Her comments on the significance of both characters being imprisoned at film’s end are just too much, and many of her points are so simpleminded and wrong that one tunes out most of what she says. An extra commentary track from a Kieslowski contributor would have been helpful to leaven the somnolence brought on by Insdorf’s preening.
That all said, White is a delightful if flawed comedy, and had it been a Hollywood film it would probably rank much higher in critical opinion worldwide. It’s merely because American minds have been so cauterized by bad art that a film like this has to be judged against its superior European counterparts, and its own siblings in the Three Colors trilogy, rather than the minor leagues that American cinema represents. Were it judged against the standard fart comedy mindset, or that of the tired ‘romantic comedy’ formulae, it would be seen in a far greater light. Regardless, it is well worth seeing, and a good way to spend an evening. When was the last romantic comedy from America that such a claim could be made for?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
Return to Bylines Cinemension