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"Where's the equality?"
on 21 June 2016
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours White is the wonderful centerpiece of his equally wonderful Three Colours Trilogy. I loved it when I first saw it in the cinema in 1994 and repeated viewings over the intervening 22 years haven’t dulled its brilliance, indeed watching it repeatedly for this review has simply made it seem greater still. For reasons I can’t fathom this one is seen by many as the weakest of the three films. Perhaps its comedy and its entertaining event-filled plot make it appear slight and obvious when placed beside the polished ambiguities and plush visual sheen of both Blue and Red. All I can say is perhaps people haven’t looked hard enough, for this film is fully the equal of its companions. We should evaluate this Trilogy as three films belonging together first and foremost and if Blue and Red make up the heavy, deeply serious metaphysical bread of the sandwich, then White is the light and delicious, but no less deeply serious metaphysical meat that makes up the center.
The initial inspiration for the Trilogy came from Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Kieślowski’s writer-partner since No End (1984). Piesiewicz had also inspired the magnificent Dekalog series of TV films made on the Ten Commandments and the Trilogy started off with his idea to make a film where “the commanding dictums of Dekalog are understood in a wider context.” In the aftermath of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in the late 80s, this “wider context” was a West European society determined by the ideals of the French Revolution, namely liberty, equality and fraternity depicted in the French flag as blue, white and red respectively. “Why not try to see how the Ten Commandments function today, what our attitude to them is and how the three words liberty, equality and fraternity function today? – on a very human, intimate and personal plane” (Kieślowski). Kieślowski and Piesiewicz made the decision to make three films on these ideals, but understood audaciously as contradictions or even as impossibilities. In White equality is explored as an ideal sort after by its main protagonist, but who finds no such thing exists. As Kieślowski says, “I don’t think anyone wants to be equal. Everybody wants to be more equal.”
As with both Blue and Red, the key to understanding the hidden complexities of White lies in paying attention to the narrative structure and the way two sequences book end everything that lies in between. The film begins and ends with sequences in places connected with the legal process. It begins in the court of law in Paris where a Polish immigrant barber Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is fighting a divorce suit filed by his French wife Dominique (Julie Delpy). His entrance into the building accompanied by a pigeon defecating on his shoulder is intercut with a suitcase on a conveyor belt going somewhere in an airport. Blue and Red also both open on sequences which visualize the abstract mechanisms which course underneath our benign everyday lives and 20 minutes into the film we realize that the suitcase we saw at the beginning depicts Karol’s fate, that his court battle is doomed to failure. The grounds for divorce are humiliating. He is impotent and has not been able to consummate his 6 month marriage. This basic inequality is writ large by the divorce where he loses his liberty, equality and fraternity as an immigrant living ironically in the land supposedly representative of these ideals. He ends up destitute on the Paris streets and the opening court scene charts his complete humiliation. 85 minutes later at the other end of our narrative the film ends with a scene inside the grounds of a prison in Warsaw. This time it is Karol who stands victorious outside while Dominique resides defeated behind prison bars, the victim of his exquisitely planned revenge to regain his equality by ‘getting even’ with her.
The essence of this film’s narrative lies in a tit-for-tat exploration of what lawyers call ‘lex talionis,’ the code of justice which calls for punishment to be meted out to the transgressor in exact relation to the offense committed. An extreme example of this would be a murderer having to forfeit his own life. Here in White Karol responds to Dominique’s theft of his ‘equality’ by stealing hers in return. It is well to remember Piesiewicz is a lawyer first and foremost who was very successful in Poland during the late 70s and through the period of martial law. All his screenplays for Kieślowski involve ethical inquiry and legal conundrums centered on what is right and wrong in the conduct of everyday life. In this Trilogy the law gradually exerts its pervasive presence with increasing power as it progresses. In Blue we noticed Julie dealing with ethical matters of legal ownership and deploying a lawyer to settle her inherited estate. That film hinges on Julie’s discovery that her deceased husband was carrying on an affair with the lawyer Sandrine and there’s a key scene at the very same Paris law court we see in White in which Julie stumbles on Sandrine sitting beside Dominique as Karol begs the court for ‘equality,’ the two films briefly crossing over. We even notice the same low camera angle used to accompany both Julie and Karol rushing up the courthouse steps in their respective films. The law exerts a stronger grip on White with its courthouse/prison framing and its central depiction of lex talionis, and in Red its presence is suffocatingly omnipresent with a narrative centering on two judges and various legal questions in Geneva, Switzerland, the home of European law and the place where law is legislated for a whole continent. All of this is reflected in the way the three colours are used. As the Trilogy progresses and the law exerts its progressively stronger grip so the colour blue (liberty) disappears from view. The colour saturates Blue and the section of White which takes place in France. It is used sparingly with specific point when the film moves to Poland, but it is completely absent from Red which in visual terms is a symphony in red and white. As the law becomes stronger so freedom (blue) vanishes for the sake of the greater fraternity (red) that universal laws promulgate, the only equality (white) allowed being the one bestowed by the over-riding law maker rendered by Kieślowski as Judge Joseph Kern who on the highest level represents God Himself.
In the Trilogy it is important to grasp that behind the law lies religion, specifically Christianity. In basic terms Blue is centrally about the resurrection of Julie through a display of charity and a renunciation of liberty in favor of universal love. This is made crystal-clear by the use of words from the Bible (1 Corinthians 13: 1-13) in the concluding montage. To the best of my knowledge no words are quoted directly from the Bible in White, but the concept of lex talionis originated in Hebrew law as laid out by God through Moses in the Old Testament: “If there is serious injury, you take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21: 23-25). Karol’s enacting of lex talionis entails his resurrection, his return to potency and the wresting back of a sense of equality in relation to Dominique. The problem is he discovers at the end that he isn’t equal. He simply becomes ‘more equal,’ but a happy end is achieved partly because he never stops loving Dominique and party because he eventually refracts lex talionis as voiced by Moses through the revised wording of the same justice code in the New Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount Christ says: “You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5: 38-39). Through the main body of the narrative Karol sets about exacting his revenge which involves faking his own death and jailing Dominique for the ‘murder.’ However, love intervenes and as he stands outside the prison window watching her mime her love to him and tears streaming down his face we know this man doesn’t go to Hong Kong as he was planning. Somehow he extricates his wife from jail and returns to his former identity together with her as we see at the end of Red. Karol learns to ‘turn the other cheek,’ to modify lex talionis as Christ tells us to. This makes White a very loose and irreverent Biblical allegory with Karol taking on some of the attributes of Christ Himself.
The film is no passion play, but we certainly notice the number of times Karol is referred to as ‘Jesus.’ When he makes his undignified return to his home country being dragged out of his stolen suitcase by thieves on a snow-bound rubbish dump overlooked by a church and to the sound of actual church bells, he announces his arrival, “Jesus home at last!” Then when he finally gets ‘home’ his brother Jurek (Jerzy Stuhr) greets him with the words, “Jesus! You’re home,” quickly followed up by “Too bad you missed Christmas.” Then later when the Polish mafia pay Karol a morning visit and threaten to kill him for beating them to buying land, he tells them that he has made a will in which everything gets left to the Church to which their response is, “Jesus..to the Church…We’re screwed.” The sequence that cements this Christ allegory for me is when Karol wakes up after spending the night in the house he has just bought. He looks at a picture on the wall which is of the Virgin Mary and Child. The picture is for a fraction of a second in clear focus before blurring to focus on Karol’s reflected face as he combs his hair back in a way that parallels Christ with his rebirth (his resurrection) as a nouveax riche entrepreneur who is now set to practice (and perpetuate) a new religion espousing equality, that is the religion of capitalism which looks set to put Poland on equal terms with the rich West European countries. Of course capitalism is all about men wanting to be ‘more equal’ than other men which ties in very closely to Kieślowski’s sardonic view of equality. We notice that Karol invites his Paris savior Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos) to run the company for him at Christmas time. Mikolaj has a Christmas tree on the roof of his car and presents in his arms as he is propositioned by the new look Karol who in addition to having slicked back hair also drives a burgundy red company car. The emphasis is very much on fraternity offered on the birth of a new venture/religion at the most appropriate time of the year – “Happy Christmas!” are Karol’s parting words to his benefactor.
Central to Karol’s enacting of lex talionis (and also adding to the Christ allegory) is his resurrection. In fact the film depicts two resurrections. They both take place underground in ‘entombed’ circumstances replete with angelic pigeons fluttering around. The first happens in Paris and has a destitute Karol living off making music from his comb (an ironic reference to his trade as a barber) on the ground of the Paris Metro. He is offered a return to life by the fellow ex-pat Pole Mikolaj who agrees to take him back to Poland in his suitcase in return for Karol killing someone. It turns out in Warsaw that this someone is Mikolaj himself so in effect in Paris both men are ‘dead.’ They do a deal to resurrect each other. Karol is taken back to Poland and his resurrection is kick-started by the two things he receives that night on the Paris Metro with Mikolaj. The first is a 2-franc coin which he demands from a Metro employee after his phone call humiliation at the hands of Dominique and the second is a bust of Marianne, the symbolic figure of liberty and of the French Republic itself. In fact Marianne appears on the reverse side of the 2-franc coin as well. Clearly his resurrection is achieved by following through two desires symbolized by these objects – to make money to put himself on an equal footing with Dominique (on throwing the coin into a river he discovers that money literally sticks to him) and to win her back physically through love. We notice that the bust of Marianne becomes Dominique for him and perhaps we should read Marianne/Dominique as representing all three ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity which had been robbed from him in the Paris law court at the beginning and which he will retrieve by the film’s closure. The second resurrection on the Warsaw subway has an even greater Biblical air about it as Karol descends the stairs to those spooky white lights typical of Kieślowski (we last saw them play on Julie’s face near the beginning of Blue) and the ethereal fluttering of pigeons. Unlike in Paris Karol is very much alive here as he meets his ‘victim’ Mikolaj who is dead in spirit. In firing a blank he performs a miracle (emphasized through slow motion) by bringing Mikolaj back to life in the manner of Jesus reviving Lazarus. Possibly the most ecstatic moment of the film has the two fooling around on a frozen river in celebration of their new-found equality as resurrected souls. Here the picture is completely white (the river, the sky, the snow on the ground) as the two figures cavort with each other as drunken black silhouettes. To cap off all the Biblical references (at least the ones I have ferretted out – there are probably a lot more which would be more obvious to Polish people familiar with their strain of Catholicism) as well as playing Lazarus Mikolaj also plays Judas at the end. As Jesus instructs Judas to betray him in the Bible so Karol instructs Mikolaj to make the phone call to the police and nail his disappearance and Dominique’s responsibility for it.
Placed in the context of Blue and Red we also see that those films feature resurrection as Julie, both judges and Valentine are all dragged back from the dead in one form or another. Karol’s dark hair (highlighted by his profession) sits neatly beside that of the two ‘saints’ in the outer films (Julie and Valentine) and offsets the blond hair of the less than ‘Holy’ characters whose behavior both causes and relieves the central crises our main protagonists face. In Blue it is the discovery of Sandrine’s affair that humiliates Julie but also drags her back to life. In Red it is Judge Joseph’s fixing up of Karin with a new boyfriend at a trial he has called that sets the young judge Auguste free and on course to meet the rootless and lonely Valentine in the aftermath of the ferry disaster. In White of course it is Dominique’s bitchy initial behavior that kick starts Karol’s desire for equality through resurrection and it is her tears shed at his funeral which ensures Karol does eventually ‘turn the other cheek’ and engineer a complete reconciliation which we don’t see fully until the end of Red.
The visual treatment of all three films is remarkable and it has been remarked that both Blue and Red are noticeably plusher than White, the dominating blues and reds of the former standing out more with the latter seeming to be altogether more pallid and less sophisticated. Edward Kłosiński had a tougher time in White as the colour is notoriously difficult to photograph. In fact it is not even a colour, Kieślowski observing that it’s more a ‘non-colour.’ White is however extremely accomplished visually in my book and as in Blue and Red it’s fascinating to observe how the three colours in question are combined to suggest different ideas. Of course the film is very ‘white’ with both blue and red given minor but fascinating roles. Indeed, to highlight the whiteness (suggesting mainly Karol’s obsession with seeking ‘equality’ with Dominique) black is accentuated both visually and in the script which works as a dead pan black comedy. In the opening 20 minute section the colour scheme is much the same as Blue with all three colours appearing at the same time. We notice most of all perhaps the car park of the law courts with its mixture of red, white and blue cars. Karol’s loss of liberty is expressed by the loss of his credit card (coloured blue of course). When he and Dominique meet in court both are wearing burgundy red sweaters (they are not divorced yet) and this is echoed later in Poland when the resurrected Karol drives a burgundy red Volvo to express fraternity of a ‘company’ kind. The severe black and white compositions especially of the first scene after Karol’s escape from the suitcase and the celebration on the river between the two resurrected souls (the sky is always white in this film) highlights the inequality which he is setting about correcting. He does so through a combination of self-help and the fraternal help of others. The deal with Mikolaj is subtly expressed through coloured scarves. When Mikolaj offers to help the destitute Karol he is wearing a red scarf (he is offering fraternity), but when he meets Karol later to gain his ‘liberty’, his scarf is blue. Also offering fraternity is Jurek whose neon sign above his barber shop is noticeably both red and white (the fraternity of brothers who are now equal), but the film’s dominant black and white highlights Kieślowski’s concern with the ‘get rich quick’ materialism that swept Poland in the aftermath of the end of Communism, everyone wanting extra-equality with Poland’s new European ‘friends’ as well as each other. The colour white literally blinds us on three occasions – twice on a repetition of a flashback (which could also be a flash-forward) to Karol’s wedding to Dominique where they are ‘equal’ before the Lord and once when Karol finally succeeds in bringing Dominique to orgasm. But this equality is both brief and illusory, the ideal proving to be as impossible to achieve as liberty was in Blue and fraternity will be in Red.
I have focused on White as a visualization of lex talionis and as a Biblical allegory mainly because most people have accused it of being too light and inconsequential when set between Blue and Red. This is the risk a filmmaker runs when he dares to make a comedy, even a sardonic black comedy like this one and I’m sure Kieślowski was well aware of this when he was making it. Of course if the humour suits your taste the film works wonderfully well as a comedy very much along the same lines as Dekalog 10 which also saw Zamachowski and Stuhr playing brothers. I love the opening 15 minute humiliation of Karol, the poor guy facing humiliation after humiliation to such an extent that we can only laugh – the bird defecating on his shoulder, the pathetic way he is left on the court steps by his icy ex-wife (that reptilian wave), the expression on his face as the bank teller cuts up his card, the busking scene where he meets Mikolaj (“Your fly’s undone”) and the way we follow him in the suitcase as it teeters perilously close to falling off a luggage truck à la the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. In Poland the comedy continues mainly in the comic duo between brothers, Jerzy’s efforts to get Karol to cut the hair of ladies who no longer want his services and then Karol’s sudden kiss of Jerzy which elucidates a hilarious reaction. The jet black comic situations centering around death, buying a corpse, faking a death, the idiocy of Polish peasants (the guy who dreams of burying his newly gained money), launching a probably illegal import-export business, and so on are all spiced up with Zbigniew Preisner’s music (the delightful lop-sided tango especially noteworthy) and ensure that we remain thoroughly engaged throughout. There are also several delicious performances to really savor. Apart from Zamachowski’s absolutely brilliant central turn which bears comparison with Juliette Binoche’s performance in Blue there is Stuhr’s big-hearted brother and Gajos’ haunted Mikolaj which is every bit as nuanced as the father he played in Dekalog 4. Julie Delpy has a very unsympathetic role which she carries off well. Without the final sign language declaration of love from behind the bars she would be a complete monster and the film may indeed be as misogynistic as some have claimed it to be. As it is Kieślowski gets away with it, but only just.
This last scene was a late addition shot separately in a Paris studio and points to the only problem I see with this film. As tidily as the legal locations book-end the narrative and as clearly as the progress of lex talionis is rendered, the ending requires some swallowing for it rests on several implausibilities. How is it Dominique’s passport shows she was in Warsaw the day of Karol’s ‘death’? Karol’s death certificate is procured before Mikolaj calls Dominique to come for the funeral. Karol observes his own funeral and then that night presents himself to Dominique in her room. The next morning he disappears and the police end up at her door thanks to Mikolaj’s phone call. We hear that Karol is supposed to be in the air en-route to Hong Kong, but instead we are shown him saying goodbye to Jerzy and being sent off with a blue shopping bag. This man doesn’t look like he’s going on a long trip. He is then let into a prison that evening (how does he manage this exactly? Prisons just don’t open like that) to find Dominique presenting herself conveniently at her cell window for her to mime her love. This is all very unlikely and shows the director wanting to tie the ends of his film together poetically rather than realistically. He wants the prison finish to mirror the law court opening and he wants the ‘crying through a window’ scene to tally with the way both Blue and Red end. The presentation is very elliptical and we are unsure how much time passes though Jerzy’s talk of identifying the corpse does suggest that everything is happening very quickly within just a couple of days. As it stands the film suggests Karol does ‘turn the other cheek’ by softening his attitude, by not going to Hong Kong, by not giving up his name. The possibility of true equality between him and Dominique is left there, and possibly cemented at the closure of Red, but within the span of this film, true equality is shown only fleetingly in the two flashbacks/flash-forwards to their wedding (as seen by both of them individually) and in the brief moment of orgasm in the hotel room. This has been cleverly built up by two flash-forwards as Karol earlier decides his plan to a girl opening a door and crossing a room which we only later realize is of Dominique at the moment Karol sees her from her bed. The film ‘feels’ like it has reached its completion and arguably we should simply give in to the poetry after the brilliance of so much of what has passed before. The ending shouldn’t be so overwhelmingly moving, but the fact that it is bears tribute to Kieślowski’s considerable skill at accessing the inner lives of his protagonists and reaching the spirit through poetic means entirely his own.