Criterion Cuts: “Three Colors: White”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

This week sees the continuation of the Three Colors trilogy. You can find the introduction and the first piece on Blue by clicking the link, but to summarize: the Three Colors trilogy is a loosely thematic grouping of unrelated films by Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, based around the three colors of the French flag and the three ideals of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. The exploration of those themes, and the ways in which they are subverted and twisted to fit the intricate lives of the protagonists in the given stories, have cemented the trilogy as a modern classic of art cinema.

Or, at least, that’s what I knew going into the project. Blue was the kind of movie that haunts a person, an amazing film that I am outright in love with. How on Earth could the next movie measure up? Does it even try? Well, it doesn’t, because it doesn’t. Let’s talk about the sharp turn taken by the second film in the trilogy:

Three Colors: White (1994)

Karol Karol is getting divorced. This is happening against his will, shoved through divorce court by his wife Dominique. Karol is barely able to protest, being a Polish immigrant to Paris, using a translator to try to plead his case. Dominique (Julie Delpy) on the other hand, presents her facts clearly: Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) was never able to consummate the marriage, and she wants out. She not only gets what she wants over Karol’s impotent protests, she gets full stake in the beauty salon they jointly owned, leaving him penniless and homeless.

Karol breaks into the salon for a place to sleep, discovered the next morning sprawled across chairs. Dominique, drawn to the uncharacteristic aggressiveness of the act, gives him one more chance to redeem himself, but his inability to perform has her ready to call the police. When he resorts to begging, she sets fire to the salon, telling him she’ll blame it on him and sending him back out onto the street as a fugitive. On the run, he takes up residence in a metro station, playing music on a comb for change, hoping to get the money to pay for passage back to Poland. It’s here that he meets Mikolaj, a man who recognizes the Polish song as being from his home country. The two men strike up the friendship of emigrants in a sea of natives, and Mikolaj ends up offering Karol a proposition: he knows a guy, someone who wants to die but can’t bring himself to commit suicide, and that guy will be willing to pay Karol handsomely to see it done.

Karol turns him down, unwilling to kill anyone even for a giant sum of money. Mikolaj instead offers to help smuggle Karol into Poland during a trip inside Karol’s giant suitcase, an offer which Karol does take him up on. The two leave Paris, but at the airport the baggage handler notes the extreme weight of the suitcase and steals it, expecting it to be full of something worth selling. Him and his companions drive out into the Polish countryside, stolen luggage in hand, and begin to open them. Imagine their surprise when Karol, penniless aside from a bust he stole before he left Paris and a 2 franc coin that is all the money in the world, bursts out of the suitcase. They beat him up and leave him at the roadside, a roadside he recognizes as his hometown.

Karol's post-Communist Poland, trash heap of potential.

Stumbling back into the hair salon his brother runs, Karol picks up his Polish life right where he left it. But, dissatisfied and wishing he could do something to get even with and prove himself to Dominique, he begins to scheme a plan to climb to a position of power, where he can accomplish whatever he sets his mind to. With that in mind, he takes a job as hired muscle for a cash exchanger that moonlights in shady land deals as the Polish countryside is quickly converted into industry and commerce as the country rushes to escape its Communist past. It’s in that job that he feigns sleeping and overhears a plan to buy up a bunch of worthless farm land in town and turn it into an Ikea warehouse.

Jumping on the opportunity, Karol tracks down Mikolaj to take the mercy killing job. Mikolaj, predictably, admits that he’s the client, but that he’s still up for being killed if Karol’s willing to do the killing. Karol meets him in an abandoned metro tunnel, much like their first meeting, but loads his gun with a blank. Mikolaj, confronted with his death and given a second chance to reconsider, decides he might want to go on living. He thanks Karol and pays him anyway, money Karol accepts as a loan and uses to buy up the land, selling it back to his bosses at ten times the price. With that start-up capital, in a few short years he and Mikolaj are running an ambiguous but successful (potentially illegally) business together.

With that money, he sets up an elaborate revenge scheme for his wife, where he buys a corpse and fakes his own death, drawing her out to Poland so he can see her react to his funeral. Watching her crying over his corpse, he decides that she really does love him, finally getting proof that he seemingly needed the entire time. He visits her hotel room that night, and the two of them end up in bed, where he finally does what could never do in his old life. That morning, he disappears again, leaving Dominique baffled as to what happened, everyone insisting that Karol is still dead. Then, at the moment of confusion, the rest of the trap is exposed. Apparently the corpse he bought had enough evidence planted on it to suggest murder, and with Dominique the inheritor of his wealth she ends up charged with his murder. The end of the film has Karol standing outside the prison, looking up at her through a window, as she looks down on him and signs an acceptance of what happened, and a desire to be reunited when she’s out of prison.

Karol's mournful stint as a subway busker lines up with the downtrodden penniless heroes of old silent cinema.

I don’t need to belabor the point, but what really signifies White is a deeply twisted relationship, a romance that’s founded not really on love or on lust but on the mutual disgust at the absence of those things. Dominique hates that he can’t satisfy her physically, and Karol hates that she has no compassion for his plight. The two of them destroy one another in turn, leaving them in some sort of equanimity at the end of it. They’re both horrible people, and perhaps what they did to each other was unforgivable, but they seem to finally come to some sort of mutual agreement. It’s the sort of offbeat romance of any romantic comedy in history, stripped of most of its humor, presented as the psychopathic mutual self-destruction the genre hides behind meet-cutes and quirky situation comedy.

White stands for equality, but of the three films it is the most deeply cynical of the ideal it purports to uphold. From the beginning, equality is an illusion. There’s a trial, meant to put everyone in a dispute on equal footing, but Dominique is Parisian and Karol is bumbling and Polish; it’s obvious from the beginning who the judge is siding with. In fact, the countries themselves are opposed against one another. Paris and France are as they always are, classically beautiful, acknowledged as being centers of refinement, even with the sort of low-level cultural xenophobia that looks down on anyone who is not of that culture.

A bust he steals from Paris on the night he flees is the only tie Karol has to the world he left behind and hopes to return to someday.

By contrast, Poland is a scrappy upstart, not entirely unlike Karol himself. Its attempts to become a capitalist state are often ingenious but deeply questionable, a wild west of sheep farms and snowy landscapes where anything could happen and success requires a gun as much as it does a suit. There’s a sort of casual acknowledgement of lawlessness and violence, an amiable good natured threat around every corner. These are the criminals upon whose backs a country’s fortune is made, and you get the sense even over the limited scope of White‘s timeframe that Poland is well on its way to becoming just like big brother France, even if it bears the hallmarks of its tradition like a farmer wearing an ill fitting suit.

That idea of equality is dangled in front of everyone, the justification of brutality and the absurd notion that people try to apply to actions that are inherently unequal. There’s a sort of totalitarianism to the idea of equality, a concept rooted in the Communist idea Poland is rejecting step by step on screen. What replaces it is a new sort of classism, one that would claim equality through paper thin egalitarianism, establishing new strata of personal value on the basis of wealth. Karol might think that his riches give him the equality he seeks, but what it really gives him is dominion over others (specifically Dominique, but Mikolaj gets roped into his scheme against his will as well), further entrenching the basic inequality of humanity.

What grounds the movie, then, and saves it from descending into deeply embittered political discourse, is that broken relationship between Karol and Dominique. What they represent is, as unhealthy as it may be, something very close to true equality. And in bringing each other down to a level of desperation, they form a connection of understanding where one didn’t exist before. The solution to the problem of equality, Whiteseems to argue, isn’t democracy, communism, capitalism, or whatever else–it is the basic tyranny of life that forces us to be humble, and in that humbleness discover those around us.

For all the twists and turns, White is at its core about the complicated relationship between two extreme personalities.

Of the three films of the trilogy then, White is the most ideologically divisive of the three, and undoubtedly the least. That’s not to say it’s without any pleasures: indeed its unlikely romance is truly fascinating to watch unfold, as off-putting as it might be, and the rags to riches story is one that we’re programmed by society to respond to, even when the movie sets out to make us question the ethics of that very idea. Saying it is the lesser film compared to two masterpieces would still be high praise, so I’m going to leave it like that. White is a strange middle child, problematic and aloof and harder to approach, but in contrast to its more emotional, accessible brethren becomes the juxtaposition that moves from the tragic remoteness of Blue to the oncoming rush of universal connectivity that is Red.

But that, ladies and gents, is a story for another time.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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One Response to Criterion Cuts: “Three Colors: White”

  1. Pingback: Criterion Cuts: “Three Colors: Red” | The No-Name Movie Blog

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