Demystifying Three Colors: White

Essay by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

These days, you can buy anything.

This is the second film in Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colours Trilogy", which deals with the idea of equality, and in my opinion, is the weakest entry of the three. It lurches unevenly between comedy and tragedy, and the atmosphere created by Kieslowski is one of malicious misogyny. Other points of difference between this film and the other two include the protagonist being male (Zbigniew Zamachowski)-- I don't know why Julie Delpy (you may remember her as the prostitute/bank teller from "Killing Zoe") gets star billing in all the promotions for this film, since she only appears in the beginning and the end of the film. Finally, unlike the visual tapestry painted by "Blue" or the metaphysical sense of wonder created in "Red", "White" is fairly straightforward, told in a matter-of-fact narrative-- less artsy.

"White" follows the journey of down-and-out hairdresser Karol Karol (Karol means "Charlie" in Polish, a reference by Kieslowski to Charlie Chaplin) from Paris to Warsaw. The story begins with a juxtaposition of a suitcase traveling down a conveyer belt and Karol approaching the courthouse in Paris, the significance of the suitcase being revealed towards the end of the first act. Karol looks up at a pigeon flying in the air, which promptly defecates on him, setting the tone for the rest of the film. He is at the courthouse because his Parisian wife, Dominique, wants to divorce him because the marriage has never been consummated-- he is impotent. She testifies that she no longer loves him. Unfortunately, there is no background given to Dominique's character (other than a flashback to the wedding) and she is merely painted as this evil character, casting a cloud of misogyny on the whole film. The divorce is granted, and Karol is on the streets, his bank account frozen (Karol watches helplessly as a bank employee cuts up his bank card), framed by Dominique for arson, and all his possessions in a big suitcase. As he plays Polish folk songs on a comb in the Metro, he catches the attention of Mikolaj, a Polish bridge player who has an excellent memory. Mikolaj offers to take him back to Poland in the suitcase, and leave behind the alienation and isolation of France (Kieslowski's true feelings of his adopted country, perhaps?).

However, once the plane lands in Warsaw, unsurprisingly, Mikolaj learns that the luggage has gone missing. We then catch up to Karol in a garbage dump outside Warsaw, where some luggage thieves have inadvertently taken him. Of course, they try to rob him, but he has nothing worth stealing, so they leave him lying in the garbage. Karol wakes up and sees the white snowswept garbage dump and cries out "home at last!".

After staying at his brother's house and working at the family hairdressing salon, Karol is inspired to regain his equality with Dominique. He will regain his prestige and money and exact vengeance on his ex-wife. Taking advantage of the new free market economy of post-communist Poland, Karol amasses a fortune with the help of the Polish Mafia and Mikolaj. Karol then fakes his own death, and leaves his fortune to Dominique, who comes to Warsaw for the funeral. He then sees her for one last time and they make love, finally consummating their relationship as Karol has regained his sexual powers. However, as the morning rises, Karol is gone and Dominique is arrested for Karol's 'murder'.

The ending left me feeling disappointed. Karol goes to the jail where Dominique is being held. Through the window, Dominique uses sign language to tell Karol that she still loves him and is willing to marry him again, if she can get out of prison. Karol begins to cry, realizing that he too, despite achieving 'equality' with his ex-wife, still loves her. He has succeeded, but it is a Pyrrhic victory. It is not an uplifting ending, like "Blue" or "Red"-- no, it is a tragedy. A tragedy born out of malice and contempt.

The only noteworthy bit of film-making is the foreshadowing of Dominique at the hotel room in Warsaw. The two instances where this occurs are points where Karol is formulating his revenge against her-- when Karol is at a riverside in Warsaw not long after returning and when he takes a job to kill someone for money.

I feel like a kid again. Everything's possible.

Resurrection and Christ allegory figures prominently in this film. Karol disposes the last vestiges of his identity before leaving Paris-- he discards all his hairdressing diplomas in the Metro, and begins anew as a businessman. Karol fakes his own death as a bid to lure Dominique to Warsaw to exact his revenge. Mikolaj also is resurrected, after he is shot by Karol with a blank. "The next one is real," Karol warns the suicidal Mikolaj, who wants to die because he wants to feel less pain (no backstory is revealed on this plot point, but because he has an excellent memory, Kieslowski is equating the burden memory to the pain of existence). Many of the characters say "Jesus" in "White". When Karol shows up at the family salon, his brother says "Jesus! Good to see you again!". When the Polish Mafia catch onto Karol's scheme to cheat them out of some property, they threaten to kill him. However, Karol tells them that in the event of his death, all his property will go to the church. "Jesus! To the church!" they say. So is Karol some thinly-veiled Christ figure? Given Karol's vindictiveness, this imagery is muddled.

Your phone stole my two francs!

While still in Paris, Karol watches Dominique's apartment from the street below, and sees two silhouettes. Karol then dumps his last coins into a pay phone. Dominique answers the phone and forces Karol listen to her make love with her new lover. Karol hangs up, but the pay phone does not return his two francs of change. He then bitterly complains to the ticket vendor to return what has been stolen. The ticket vendor reluctantly refunds his money and these two francs are held on tightly by Karol throughout the film, a symbol his quest for equality. As he stands by a river in Warsaw, he is about to toss the two francs away, but he stops himself and it is at this point he comes up with his plan to regain his equality. He finally lets go of the two francs after inspecting the body that will be buried as part of his 'death'-- he is no longer inferior to Dominique; in fact, he has surpassed his ex-wife's malevolence.

The old woman and the recycling bin show up while Karol is shivering on the streets of Paris. Unlike Julie in "Blue", Karol does notice her but merely smirks as she tries to deposit a bottle into the opening, perhaps happy to see someone in worse shape than he is. Also watch out for Juliette Binoche appearing as Julie in the background of the courthouse scene, the converse of the courthouse scene in "Blue". Finally, though the ending seems defeatist, the true ending of "White" is actually found at the end of "Red", where it seems Karol and Dominique have reconciled and re-married.

"White" is not one of Kieslowski's better works and is the oddball of the "Three Colours Trilogy". It is not visually arresting as some of his other work, the message is muddled, and the Zbiegnew Priesner-composed music is restrained. But on the other hand, because of its straightforward narrative style, it is the most 'mainstream' of all of Kieslowski's films.

Go Back to Movie Review Archive Index