White (1994) ***1/2 out of ****
Review by: Mark Bernard
Directed by: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Written by: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Scenario: Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Agnieszka Holland, Edward Zebrowski, Edward Klosinski,
Translation: Marcin Latallo
Starring: Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delpy, Janusz Gajos, Jerzy Stuhr
(R) – Some Sexuality and Language
Runtime: 91 min
(In French and Polish with English subtitles)
I’ll admit, I’m new to the works of Krzysztof Kieslowski; the veteran Polish film maker who is considered amongst the greatest directors of all time. I first heard of his epic final trilogy when looking through Roger Ebert’s top ten of the year lists. For his 1994 list, the second was a series of three films simply labeled ‘Blue’, ‘White’ and ‘Red’. In his best of the 1990’s he talks further about a ‘Three Colors Trilogy’. I took a French series titled simply with colors to be higher art than I was probably going to stomach and passed them up at the time.
To a degree I’m glad I did as after a continuous reoccurrence of them coming up in greatest films of all time I finally sat down to view them, and what I experienced was an absolute treat.
I still don’t know much about Kieslowski, what little I have read notes that he began making films in the 1970’s under the Communist regime. Starting with documentaries, he experienced censorship from the government at the time and decided that he could convey his ideas better with drama. Throughout his carrier he constantly battled censorship and regulators till the late 80’s when he sourced French money for his films, which he would continue till his retirement in 1995.
What I can say from viewing the Three Color’s films, is that he has a unique and deep understanding of human nature and his ability to translate that on camera is some of the best I have ever seen.
I started with ‘White’ as it was labeled as a comedy, and I wasn’t looking to immerse myself in another tragedy at the time, as is ‘Blue’. What you find after viewing all three is the details that link them, and as such I would recommend viewing them in order if you can as it will be a richer experience.
The film opens with our protagonist, Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), in the middle of a divorce trial with his soon to be ex-wife, Dominique (Julie Delpy). Through the embarrassing unfolding, he finds himself out on the street, nothing but a suitcase and a comb, which he uses to play for change in a train station later that night. Prior to this, he attempts to reconcile with Dominique, who subsequently frames him for arson after freezing his accounts and destroying his passport… yhea.
In the station he meets a fellow Pollock, who after sharing a bottle of vodka and reminiscing about home, offers him a deal. There is a man back in Poland who wants to kill himself, and can’t bring himself to complete the task. If he were to kill the man, he would have enough money to start a new life.
After an inspired, yet somewhat poorly planned scheme involving him curling up in his suitcase and traveling as the man’s luggage, he arrives in Poland and his luck changes. He quickly establishes himself and then, once settled, sets out for a complex revenge scheme against his ex that is if anything, worthy of applause.
All three of the ‘Colors’ movies are quite short, and play like small snippets or sketches, each modeling after a theme and utilizing a heavy dose of the color they are named after. In ‘White’ we see a bleak, post communist Poland, where the sky never changes from a grey hue. To say the photography is good would be an understatement, it’s fantastic, dwarfed only by the first and following films in the trilogy, which require it more. Yet Kieslowski’s understanding and mastery of the camera is still apparent here. All three films are dedicated fully to their primary characters, we often see things through their eyes, and he utilizes both intimate close ups, as well as over the shoulder techniques that keep us centered.
Never far from the somewhat dense plotting is the character of Karol, we feel that Kieslowski has put a lot of himself in to him and there is an obvious love and dedication to the themes of homesickness and longing.
In France Karol can’t even get it up, in Poland, he is a master, quickly creating his own business and gaining incredible wealth, taking advantage of the fresh fields of capitalism burgeoning in the countries new political shift. When all this comes to its climax, I felt the movie was very brief, it plays out like a short, yet it lasts 90 minutes. This is something apparent in all three films; they don’t jump around much and have small arc’s, the space that fills the middle is room for the characters to wander and develop.
A lot of people, especially film students have heard of the ‘Three Colors Trilogy’, yet I think their standing gives a sort of elitist impression that puts them off, I know it did for me. Yet when I finally got around to seeing them, the truth is they are incredibly accessible. The concepts, the humor, the tragedy, the increeedible irony are all high concepts (not in the Hollywood terminology of course), but Kieslowski treats them in an incredibly humanistic and comprehendible manor. The symbolism in the films works towards the story, but if you don’t pick it up, you’ll still get the gist and find it a rewarding experience. He tells a story for people, of which he absolutely was one of, never pushing for any sort of overly elitist art-house douche baggery, and that’s the films that we see here.
Of them all I think if you’re put off by the scope, White is probably the most accessible, but never-the-less, is still a small masterpiece of storytelling and human nature. Even as a lighter film than the two others, that essence shines, and even in that, were still treated to one of the most powerful scenes in the whole series, you’ll know it when you see it.