(director/writer: Krzysztof Kieslowski; screenwriter: Krzysztof Piesiewicz; cinematographer: Edward Klosinski; editor: Urszula Lesiak; music: Zbigniew Preisner; cast: Zbigniew Zamachowski (Karol Karol), Julie Delpy (Dominique), Janusz Gajos (Mikolaj), Jerzy Stuhr (Jurek), Jerzy Nowak (The Old Farmer); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Marin Karmitz; Miramax Films; 1994-France)

“White is a beautifully accomplished lyrical work that is both silly and serious.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is part two of the great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s (“Decalogue“) trilogy, whose titles are taken from the colors of the French flag. The white stands for equality, as understood from the French Revolution. It’s a rags-to-riches story with the idea that revenge is the impetus needed for someone who is desperate to succeed after being severely dissed. This is a tortured romantic/comedy film, one that is personal and more Polish than French. Its story loosely concerns itself with the ideas of political and personal equality.

Nondescript Warsaw hairdresser Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is not a figure to be taken seriously. A pigeon craps on him when he enters the Paris court to contest a divorce from his beautiful French wife Dominique (Julie Delpy) of six months. She gets the divorce because he never consummated the marriage, despite his pleas to the judge that he loves her and should be given another chance. Dominique flatly says she doesn’t love him — it’s all over. In Poland, before they were married, Karol had no trouble satisfying her sexually. But once in this foreign land, Karol can’t get it up. He now feels the court is stacked against him since he doesn’t speak French and has to rely on an interpreter. As a result of the divorce Karol ‘s money is gone and his bank ATM card is canceled. When left homeless he tries to sleep over at his ex-wife’s apartment, but she sets the curtains on fire and calls the cops on him as a madman seeking revenge. Karol is now wanted by the police, has lost his passport, has no money, and sleeps in his battered suitcase in the Metro. There’s a hole in it so he could breathe. Reaching rock bottom, the disheveled Pole plays a Polish tune on his comb to earn some money. Karol attracts the attention of another Pole, Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos), here for a bridge tournament, who sympathizes with his plight and tells him that he knows someone suffering who will pay handsomely to be shot dead. The scene where Karol carries out that task, is the film’s most poignant.

Karol with the aid of Mikolaj smuggles himself into Warsaw by hiding in his suitcase during the plane trip, but Polish thieves rob the suitcase and when they see he has no money they pummel him and leave him abandoned and bleeding in the snowy countryside. The film’s funniest line is when the clumsy Karol looks up from his beating and exclaims “Home at last!” Returning to town, he surprises his brother Jurek (Jerzy Stuhr) in his hairdresser’s salon. Soon as he recovers from his beating, Karol is in demand cutting hair for his brother’s female customers. But Karol has other plans than to use his great skills as a hairdresser, as he aims to get wealthy the fast way in the new Polish capitalist system and win back his ex-wife. But is it for love or revenge? That is the ironical question asked.

Karol becomes a bodyguard for some low-level black-marketeer operator and overhears a conversation between him and another operator about a farm tract property that builders are interested in purchasing for a song and then selling it to realtors for a huge profit. He beats the racketeers to it and begins to amass a dubious fortune by no longer being a clod but suddenly becoming an enterprising and aggressive businessman who knows how to milk the free market system, as he goes from land speculation to becoming the head of a wealthy legit corporation. Karol’s only unhappiness is that he’s still in love with Dominique and she refuses to see him.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

The perverse denouement is delightfully plotted, as Karol devises one sick plan to get back his wife. He fakes his death and leaves her all his assets in his will, and then has her framed for his murder when she sets foot in Poland. Kieslowski and his co-screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz go to town cooking up this droll black comedy ending that lambastes the new Polish capitalists and their unsavory ethics.

While the story is cruel, it never forgets how powerful love is and how it can ruin one’s life.

For Kieslowski, equality is only an ideal. In real-life things can be unfair and usually are, and the bitter-sweet ending is a testimony to both love and revenge being very strong emotions. “White” is a beautifully accomplished lyrical work that is both silly and serious. Why this is a work of considerable art, despite its droll nature and attempt to be amusing more than to enlighten, is because it helps the viewer understand himself or herself a little better after digesting the fullness of the ironic meal Kieslowski served.

Three Colors: White Poster

REVIEWED ON 9/14/2002 GRADE: B +