This is my contribution to the Kryzsztof Kieslowski blog-a-thon, which starts tomorrow. Spoilers follow.
“These days,” says a chauffeur to his employer, “you can buy anything.”
The time and place is 1990s Poland, a country flush with the aftermath of Solidarity—that wellspring of political hope—and the onslaught of capitalism—that, well, spring of financial hope. Both the chauffeur and the businessman know the phrase is absolutely true and, what’s more, that the statement conveys radically different things, depending on who’s talking.
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s White, the middle film of his Three Colors trilogy, illustrates this concept—“these days, you can buy anything”—beautifully, hilariously, and savagely. Although the movie was advertised in America as “a seductive story of love and obsession,” and Julie Delpy’s deliciously gamine form overwhelmed the posters, the love and obsession is reserved primarily for money.
Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is a Polish exile in Paris. He’s come to make his fortune as a star hairdresser, with his gorgeous French wife Dominique (Delpy), and escape the depressing, sludgy, colorless country of his birth. We don’t know any of this at first and, indeed, at the film’s start, Karol is a sad sack. His wife’s divorcing him because he’s impotent; he hasn’t been able to “close the deal” since before they were married.
Karol’s sexual impotence is a perhaps too obvious metaphor for his rootlessness in France. He doesn’t know the language. The culture befuddles him—when we first see him, what we see is his floppy, dragging walk; he can’t even walk like the Parisians. His clothes are shabby. It’s pretty clear that he’s been out of work for a while. He’s utterly without the necessary urban guile. The lack of potency soaks through his soul. It’s pretty clear why Dominique, who claims in court that she once loved him, had to flee.
Still, we root for Karol. He’s a schmuck, but he’s our schmuck. Zamachowski plays him as a naïve but noble buffoon, a Polish Falstaff with a dry wit and intelligence that we only gradually come to understand. His clear, liquid eyes brim with love and sorrow, but the frazzled hair and chubby bounce make us laugh both at and with this clown. He’s mild-mannered, warm, and soulful.
Dominique, on the other hand, is framed as a cold-hearted bitch. Not a word I like to use, to be sure, but Kieslowski lights and frames Delpy as a near-she-devil, a woman so beautiful and hard that she doesn’t quite seem human. Our first view of her is on a literal pedestal, testifying in divorce court. Our next shot of her—and it’s surprising how strong a presence she has, given how few scenes Delpy actually has—comes outside the courthouse. We see her from a distance, chucking Karol’s suitcase (which contains his only possessions) out of her car. Dominique is often shot in white light that bleeds into her skin, so as to confuse her with a goddess (equal parts Aphrodite and Artemis), or shot in silhouette or through diaphanous light. When we see her dead-on, the cold, crisp lighting scheme renders her hard. On camera, Dominique is an overwhelming erotic presence but, paradoxically, a not entirely substantial one.
It’s not Kieslowski’s misogyny that’s on display but, obliquely, that of his protagonist. Even though close-ups and obvious POV shots are rare in White, it’s clear that our vision of its world is Karol’s. There are repeated cuts—to a suitcase slowly moving down an airport terminal’s conveyor belt (again, her parting shot to her now ex-husband), to Dominique in a wedding gown walking out of the church to meet the new couple’s celebrants, of Dominique entering her apartment—that show us how much she’s on Karol’s mind.
But Karol only sees her in these fragmented flashbacks. Kieslowski is, above all, a master of the subjective camera, which means that we only see her, really, as Karol sees her. And Karol, and we’ve said before, is a mess. He wants to be worthy of Dominique, to be her emotional, financial, and sexual equal. As much as we grow to love—and later dislike or at least distrust—him, he’s not that. Not yet, anyway.
Karol returns to Poland in that trusty suitcase—after seeing it in unexplained flashbacks, it’s hilarious to finally know what that airport conveyor belt sequence means—with two francs to his name. As Karol grows richer, he fiddles more and more with that coin, in the same way that Scrooge McDuck holds on to his first dime. It’s an apt reminder of what’s foremost in his mind—Dominique and money.
Or, rather, money and Dominique. He’s obsessed by puppy love of Dominique as the movie opens but, somewhere along the way, he becomes obsessed with revenge against her. Money’s his way of buying his humiliation of her, to make her understand his suffering by being forced to imitate it. By movie’s end, they’re equals of a sort.
On the French flag, the color white symbolizes “equality.” In White, money is the great equalizer—it makes everyone equally corrupt. Money gets the characters anything they want—a gun, pricey farmland, a dead body. The new Poland is chock-full of go-getters. A few of them even use legal means. Most, though, are bottom-rung gangsters. Upon his return to Warsaw, Karol gets a job as a comically obvious bodyguard and lookout. Through cunning and cheating, he works his way to the top. It’s the rags-to-riches story, Polish style—more corruption, melancholia, and mordant humor, than the American version.
It’s worth noting how funny White is. Karol, his business partner Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos), and Karol’s brother (Jerzy Stuhr) would be a kick to just watch and listen to in a dank bar, downing shot after shot of vodka. Zamachowski’s turn from naïve stumblebum to cosmopolitan power-suiter would be riveting even without his rubbery face and good humor, but those two aspects help. Gajos’s terse quips and furrowed brow push out laughter without making much effort. Stuhr, an open-faced and dour homebody, drawls out his lines perfectly. (His whole face, in fact, looks like a long drawl.) The slapstick, when it comes, is dry; the one-liners are whispered, struggling against the cold air.
White’s humor reflects Poland as Karol (and maybe Kieslowski) sees it—dark, subtle, vaguely ugly, but utterly lovable. Kieslowski’s still camera catches the refracted light of the snow, the perpetually overcast sky, and the aura of the fluorescent lighting in such a beautiful way that Poland’s muddiness and glitzed-up squalor becomes glorious.
It’s so glorious, in fact, that it’s a shame that Karol walks away from it all. “White,” of course, also implies a blank page, a clean slate. Our hairdresser begins the movie steeped in the traditions of his neighborhood. In Paris, he’s so downright Polish that, on first meeting in the subway, Mikolaj knows Karol’s Polish before he says a word. When he tries to slink back into his old barbershop unannounced, everyone—especially his adoring female clients—knows he’s returned to Warsaw.
But Karol wants none of that. He, ironically, wants to start afresh in his old homestead. It’s impossible. Even when he thinks he’s moving ahead, the film’s deft editing shows us those flashbacks—Dominique’s smiling face on their wedding day; Dominique, silhouetted in repose as she comes home, sad and lonely; the bust of a Petrarchian woman (it might as well be labeled, “Dominique”), looms over his bedroom. Still, he wants the chance to wipe away all his history, and only money provides that opportunity.
By the end of White, its protagonist has rebuked the clear-cut (pun intended) world he’s inhabited all his life, and embraced a world that’s blank, empty of meaning but full of money. His office is bare of decoration except for the bust, and he sleeps in it. We never learn exactly what Karol deals in—in a single tracking shot, we see him selling bananas and buying stock in electronics. Even the land he buys to start his fortune is intended for the construction of an Ikea warehouse—Ikea being the worldwide symbol of quality furniture that’s utterly uniform and blank.
Old Poland is being reduced to the beautiful whites and grays of conformity and emptiness—beautiful, yes, but also deadening. The more money he gets, the more Karol looks like just anybody. As the movie starts, we could pick him out of a crowd at fifty paces; by the midpoint, he’s an anonymously rich businessman.
That moral and aesthetic shift is crucial to understanding what the movie’s up to. Our loyalties change as White progresses. While Karol initially seems the more soulful, warm, and human presence, countered by the goddess-on-a-pedestal Dominique, she gradually becomes the one with whom our sympathies lie. Karol, becoming more moneyed but also less distinct, turns cold and inhuman. As Dominique gazes out of a prison cell window, the film cuts back to that wedding-day flashback. Nothing’s changed about it except for the context—we realize that this rare happy moment belongs as much to her as it does to Karol.
Just like that, she’s humanized. We’re forced as viewers to contend with the idea that, like Karol, she too wonders how all the joy left their marriage. Our vision of White’s world has shifted to her eyes.
In this way, Kieslowski’s editing, and eye for the perfect glimpse, interrogates the viewer. Looking back at the movie, it dawned on me that I’m not sure Karol and Dominique actually change much over the course of White. We see Karol’s avarice early on as he viciously demands a refund from a payphone—that fabled two francs. When Dominique catches him sleeping in her salon, right before he leaves Paris, she doesn’t do the natural thing (throw his ass out), but instead tries to coax him lovingly back into her arms and between her legs. (He fails again.) Their essential natures are there at the outset but Kieslowski’s subjective filmmaking casts them in a casually shifting light as the movie goes on. He manipulates our sympathies and, by doing so, exposes them as mere sentimentalities.
Karol, sentimentally attached to the idea of Dominique rather than the real woman, uses money to get her back, only to (by his own design) lose her again. Even more than that, he’s forced to leave his beloved Poland in the effort. His elaborate, joyless plan does its trick—she ends up humiliated and penniless. In the process, though, he loses his soul.
Kieslowski’s a crafty shapeshifter. White looks and laughs like a great comedy, but any movie in which a hero as initially sympathetic and warm as Karol becomes this heartless and cruel can’t be called anything but a tragedy. Even Karol sheds tears at the loss.