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A BRIGHT WHITE

Clearly Krzysztof Kieslowski has plenty to say. Maybe he's even got the faintest touch of serial killer in him. In any case, the extraordinary Polish director now makes his movies in bunches. The Decalogue was a relatively obscure series of ten films exploring each of the Commandments, and his "Three Colors Trilogy," of which White is the second installment, takes its inspiration from the official French ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.

The "liberty" film, Blue, a smart, gorgeous piece of work in which grieving young widow Juliette Binoche sets out to obliterate her past and her passions, played here in Denver for a month this spring. The "fraternity" story, Red, was all the rage at last month's Cannes Film Festival but has yet to open in the United States.

That leaves us, for now, with White--and with the capacious notion of equality. If art-house connoisseurs have any remaining doubts about Kieslowski's stature as a craftsman and an innovator, this dark tragicomedy of love and revenge in a changing Europe should dispel them. If anything, it's an even wittier and more fascinating film than Blue--although devotees will easily detect such common threads as passion, infidelity and emotional imprisonment. Not to mention color-coding.

The new film's rumpled, hangdog hero is a displaced Polish hairdresser named Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski). When we first see him, he is shuffling off to divorce court in Paris. Trust Kieslowski to immediately lay on a bad omen in the form of a visual pun: On the courthouse steps, an overflying pigeon drops white stuff onto the shoulder of Karol's jacket. Inside, things get worse. Karol's beautiful, hard-hearted French wife, Dominique (Julie Delpy), is cutting him loose without a sou, charging that the marriage was never consummated. Make what you will of the ensuing metaphor: Poor Karol admits to the judge that he's capable of making love only on Polish soil.

For the next hour and a half, Kieslowski and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz commingle farce, political parable and carnal obsession to glorious effect. Reduced to poverty and homelessness in a foreign land, Karol soon finds himself playing comb and tissue paper for pennies in the freezing Paris metro, while his now ex-wife continues to taunt him. At rock bottom, though, he is befriended by a dour fellow Pole, Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos). Together they engineer Karol's bizarre return home, where the poor fellow tries to put his life together again.

Even more familiar with the slush-spattered streets of Warsaw (not quite white, of course, but off-white--like the moral tone) than with Paris, Kieslowski shows us the shabby, back-stabbing, sweetly naive brand of Eastern European capitalism that's sprung up in the wake of the Communist collapse. Tirelessly, the downtrodden Karol uses the newfound tools of the West to plot his future and amass a small fortune in a city where, suddenly, you can buy anything--a gun, a parcel of land, a fax machine, a corpse.

In Karol, American viewers may be reminded of The Great Gatsby: Here, too, is a romantic idealist who reinvents himself for the unattainable woman he loves. But Kieslowski is a darker thinker than F. Scott Fitzgerald. The twist this ironic Pole puts onto Karol's dogged efforts to achieve may be postmodern or vaguely gothic--take your choice. But it makes all the difference when we come at last to grasp his hero's notion of "equality."

Once again, Kieslowski's visual gifts are in full flower. While the dominant tones of Blue actually gave you the blues, White is drenched in gradations of that color, each with its own shade of meaning. Wife Dominique's pale face is one hue of white, the pigeon dung on Karol's shoulder quite another, the haunting porcelain statue with which Karol now shares his room a third. No other filmmaker on the planet creates emotional landscapes so well with subtle color schemes.

He's also a sublime wit. In White, Kieslowski gives us a stinging reversal of feminist orthodoxy, some sharp satire of the New Europe's avarice and a clear vision of the odd, vestigial innocence--another shade of white, to be sure--that characterizes the striving and motives of human beings in the late twentieth century. Just beneath the tale of Karol's quest to redeem himself, there's a vivid universal drama.

It probably won't take the arrival of the much-ballyhooed Red to multiply the ranks of the Kieslowski cult that got its start with The Double Life of Veronique. As colors and movies go, White is pretty substantial in its own right.

 
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