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WHITE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delpy, Janusz Gajos, Jerzy Stuhr
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen, 1.85:1, color
Studio: Miramax
Features: Woah, just see below!
Length: 92 minutes
Release Date: March 4, 2003

"If I say I love you, you don't understand.  If I say I hate you, you still don't understand.  You don't understand that I need you, that I want you.  Do you understand?"

Film *** 1/2

This is part two of a three-part review of Trois Couleurs that began with Blue.  Those interested in Trois Couleurs may wish to look over the Three Colors overview for more background information about director Krzysztof Kieslowski and his concept for the trilogy, which continues with this film, Blanc (White).

Krzysztof Kieslowski, a graduate of the famed Lodz Film Academy, achieved wide international recognition with the Cannes premiere of his 1991 film La Double vie de Veronique.  A film enthusiast at heart, he wasted little time in preparing treatments for his new French project - Trois Couleurs.  Blue would be the first film completed for the trilogy, but even before he was finished with it, Kieslowski began filming White.  During various stages of White's production, Kieslowski would spend time either editing Blue or completing the script for Red.  He was sometimes too focused upon his craft - an incident early in Blue's production, when he worked for 24 hours straight, exhausted his crew and rendered them entirely useless the following day.  Then again, this should come as no surprise for a director who once completed, in the span of a year, a documentary, two feature-length films, and one 10-hour film!  Despite his overwhelmingly workaholic love for film-making, Kieslowski was uniformly beloved by all his crew and cast.  Editor Jacques Witta, when asked if he wanted to work with Kieslowski on his Trois Couleurs, replied, "400%."

Kieslowski's amazing work ethics continued during filming of Trois Couleurs.  His aim was to release Blue in 1993 for the Venice Film Festival and White later the same year in Berlin.  Kieslowski accomplished his goal, an amazingly proficient task for a director who did not even speak French.  Blue swept a huge number of awards, and White earned him the Best Director Award at the Berlin Film Festival.

White is the lightest in tone of the three films.  It is a tale about a hapless man named Karol (Zamachowski).  He is a little Polish barber, upbeat yet goofy.  He wears a perpetual look of confounded naivete on his face.  He is pretty much a lovable loser, the proverbial fish out of water.  His exasperated French wife, Dominique (Delpy), certainly thought so, for she has most unceremoniously dumped him out onto the Parisian streets after their annulment.  Sought by the police after Dominique frames him for arson, penniless after a bank employee nonchalantly cuts up his credit card, Karol is simply not having a good day.  He ends up hobo-ing it around the Parisian metros.

Despite his string of luck, all bad, Karol still loves Dominique.  One day, he calls her up, only to have her answer during a passionate encounter with another man.  Perhaps it is the inciting incident for his hero cycle.  Something snaps in Karol.  The call instills in Karol a sense of purpose, for he determines thereafter to show to Dominique that he is not a loser.  He is not a toss-away, little barber but her equal!  He resolves to earn her respect even if it means sneaking out of Paris back home to Poland in a suitcase.

Karol's new odyssey begins badly.  Arriving in Poland, he is beaten by hoodlums.  When they discover that his wallet contains one lousy coin, which Karol nonetheless attempts to retrieve, they toss him and the coin aside and depart in disgust.  As he lies face-down in the dirt, Karol looks up and flashes an optimistic smile.  "Home at last," he says.  The shot is a simple one yet it defines his character.  His net worth may be a mere two francs, but Karol still has his indomitable spirit.  We begin to understand implicitly that, no matter what the obstacles, he will somehow eventually re-build his life and perhaps find a way back into Dominique's good graces.

After the somber mood of Blue, White feels downright cheerful.  It is not a typical comedy, however, even if it is somewhat fanciful and comic in tone.  White is very much akin in spirit to the "comedies" of Louis Malle (My Dinner with Andre, Vanya on 42nd Street).  There are no actually hilarious moments, though the situations that arise are often amusing in a real but touching way.  White is a celebration of the bittersweet ironies of being human.  The attainment of love is often fraught with pain, and sometimes, life does not begin until after a symbolic death.  Not just a comedy, White is almost at times an upside-down love story.

White's plot takes several liberties with cross-cutting chronology and even with believability.  As the film progresses, we become increasingly less certain of whether the images that Kieslowski offers represent past, present, or future.  Some scenes exist as flashbacks, though it is unclear as to whether they are Karol's or Dominique's.  The ambiguity strengthens the invisible bond between both characters, suggesting that despite their current separation, their lives are inevitably intertwined.  Some scenes seem to exist in a normal world, while others have such a surreal reality that we wonder if they exist beyond Karol's imagination or hopes.  How else to rationalize the oddness of Karol's sudden success or Dominique's final predicament?

A key scene occurs near the film's mid-point after Karol comes into a great deal of money.  I will not reveal how he acquires this money, but he now has the means to resurrect his life.  One minute, he is a dirt-poor barber; the next minute, he has a chauffeur and wears a very smart suit.  Of course, a year has passed and while the film offers some hints to this effect, it is easy to overlook, especially given the wavering chronology.  The relative speed of Karol's subsequent business success may also bear a ring of implausibility if one is not aware of Poland's actual economic situation during the time of filming.  Poland had just recently been liberated from communism.  The newborn and inexperienced capitalistic society, especially in Warsaw, the setting for Karol's home, provided enormous potential for growth and rapid wealth through international trade...for someone with the proper drive and motivation.  Karol, for his part, is utterly driven by an unwithering desire to make something of himself, to regain his dignity and to prove to Dominique that he is deserving of her.

Oddly, in the midst of these scenes that document Karol's rise, there is another scene.  It is a night-time scene, and Karol, looking disheveled and wearing simple clothing, awakens from his sleep.  He does not appear very confident or prosperous.  He is, in fact, tearful and decides to call Dominique again.  In the foreground, we see an alabaster bust.  It is the very likeness of his beloved Dominique.  It is in fact the only other possession he brought back with him to Poland.  There is a poignant scene early in the film in which he repairs a break in the bust and later, in silhouette, kisses it.  Now, he calls the real Dominique and begs her to speak so he may hear her voice.  She promptly hangs up, at which point the scene fades to black.  In the very next scene, we see a confident, smartly-attired Karol once more, formulating a plan to bring Dominique to him.

One could interpret this sequence several ways.  Everything could be simply part of Karol's reality - he really is wealthy and powerful and his phone call motivates him to use his new wealth to bring Dominique to him.  Or, everything could be a part of Karol's dream, with only the night scene as reality.  The real Karol could be a lonely, poor barber who still fantasizes about the woman who abandoned him; the dream Karol could be this wealthy, powerful man who can win back his love.  On the surface, Kieslowski's narrative seems straight-forward enough, but it leaves room for interpretation.

Near the film's end, an encounter between Karol and Dominique continues this ambiguous tone.  The scene has a strange familiarity about it.  Have we seen it before?  Yes - very brief portions were played earlier in the film.  What, then, is reality?  What is fantasy?  What is real-time and what is the past?  Furthermore, throughout the film, happy scenes from Karol's wedding are glimpsed.  Are they merely Karol's repetitive memories, or do they serve to imply a future re-conciliation between Karol and Dominique?

White may be an ironic comedy but it conceals many labyrinthine meanings.  As with all of Kieslowski's films, it is a film that improves with every subsequent re-viewing, slowly revealing its secrets.  The film's construction, though unorthodox, is ultimately brilliant.  The Berlin Film Festival chose wisely in rewarding Kieslowski with a well-deserved Best Director award for White.

Video *** 1/2

This is an excellent transfer.  The picture is clean, and the colors have a penetrating vividness to them.  While American audiences may be initially unsettled by the slightly soft and grainy image quality, rest assured that these are deliberate decisions by Kieslowski and do not reflect a flaw in the transfer (which is, as stated, excellent).  Kieslowski wanted to establish a certain degree of realism and intimacy in his films.  He enjoyed the grainy, intimate quality that most documentaries possess, and having started his career in documentaries, he was comfortable in adapting their appearance to his fictional films.

Hollywood films often shun anything other than a fine grain, highly polished appearance.  Sometimes, however, there are alternate methods of photographing a film that unequivocally serve the story better.  As a master filmmaker, Kieslowski knew this, and it is something to keep in mind when watching any of his films.

Audio ***

White is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0.  Like its sister films, it is dialogue-driven.  The audio is heard mostly in the front speakers and is free of pops or hiss.  The .1 channel will not receive much attention; bass plays an insignificant role in this film, anyways.  Overall, this is a fine audio mix that delivers exactly the right tone for the film.

Features ****

Now this is what I call bonus features!  The combined time of all the extras is greater than White's actual length.  As with Blue, some of the extras originate from the European DVDs, while others are unique to the Miramax editions.  Judging by the language therein, it's easy to tell what's new or not, but nonetheless all the features are of an extremely high quality. 

A warning - please watching the film first before looking over the features.  There is so much presented here that some of it may surely spoil the experience of seeing White for the first time.  This also applies to Blue and Red, too!

First up is A Look at Blanc.  It consists mostly of interviews of various colleagues, cast, or crew who participated in the making of the film.  These same people will show up again in the other features as well, but they always have something new and interesting to say.

Next is part two of a discussion of Kieslowski's films in general.  Part one, concerning his early documentary work, was covered in Blue.  This half concentrates on his latter films from the mid-1980's onward.  It is revealed at one point that Kieslowski was working on scripts for a new trilogy - Hell, Paradise, and Purgatory.  Perhaps one day these films will be made.

I love A Discussion on Working with Kieslowski!  It very prominently features scenes from  La Double vie de Veronique, my second favorite Kieslowski film.  Viewers may notice that the film is bathed in a consistently dark, golden hue - it was all quite deliberate and created a mystical aura about the film.  Interestingly, despite its low budget, the film cost more than all of Kieslowski's previous Polish films....combined!  Obviously, Kieslowski did not require a great deal of money to create cinematic masterpieces.  Hollywood directors, please take note!  Lastly, on a wry note, the truth about Dutch composer Van den Budenmayer is revealed.  I will not reveal it here, but he was a favorite of Kieslowski's and was either mentioned or had his music prominently featured in many of Kieslowski's later films.

A Conversation with Julie Delpy is a 10-minute featurette on her recollections about working with Kieslowski.  She's really funny.  She speaks English so rapidly that you forget she's French.  She also reveals that Kieslowski was often right behind the camera during filming, literally inches away from the actors' faces.  It's an amusing clip, though some of the material appears in the other features as well.

Julie Delpy returns for a scene commentary featurette and looks stunningly beautiful.  I'm sure she was relating a lot of interesting anecdotes about the film and Kieslowski, but I hardly remember a word.  However, I am convinced that European actresses all secretly know the precise location of the Fountain of Youth.  Oh - Delpy does mention something funny; she had never driven a car before prior to filming.  Yet, for one scene, she hopped into a car and drove off, much to the shock of the crew, which had to chase after her to make sure she didn't crash.

Next up is a short cinematic class by Kieslowski himself.  He's not so pretty, but he can certainly make a great film.  He reveals some of his secrets in this rare but wonderful lesson.

Producer Marin Karmitz has a very small featurette.  In it, he reads notes during pre-production hinting that Kieslowski was already tired even before filming for Trois Couleurs had begun.  Secondly, Karmitz reads a note suggesting changes to White's original ending.  These improvements appear in the final version and offer a sense of hope that had been previously absent.  The featurette is short but quite revealing.

Behind the Scenes is a series of videos documenting the filming of White.  A similar feature is included on the Red DVD.  The videos are presented in an essentially raw form without any narration.  Furthermore, they actually show the filming process, not a montage of publicity stunts.  All in all, this is a great and rare opportunity to see Kieslowski at work.

Next, a trio of Kieslowski's student films has been assembled for the DVD.  They're fairly short (less than six minutes apiece) but still intriguing.  Kieslowski's talents are clear even this early in his career.  Trolley is a silent story about a boy who sees a pretty girl on a trolley.  The Face is an avant-garde short about a frustrated young painter who destroys his self-portraits and mirrors before starting afresh.  The Office is a documentary about a day in a busy licensing office.  Normal civilians, including a Spiro Agnew look-alike, stand in line and speak a lot of Polish.  There are no subtitles, so, uh, good luck.  Still, one can never have too many Kieslowski's films!

White has a commentary track by Annette Insdorf.  She returns for an encore performance from the Blue DVD and once again provides a wonderfully rich discussion.  Obviously, Insdorf knows a great deal about the film and offers a very detailed and insightful discussion on its structure, its themes, the cinematography, the editing, the script, and pretty much everything.  The commentary really is a thrill to listen to!

Lastly, there is a filmography for Kieslowski films.  It is the same one that appears on all three DVDs of the trilogy.  The sneak peeks section has three trailers, including a wretched one for Red that is a complete insult to Kieslowski's best film.  Utter vomitus.  Don't watch it!

A final word - ignore the silly hype on White's DVD cover, too.  The hype is phony baloney and utterly misrepresents White.  In fact, consider that a blanket statement for all three films.  It beats me why publicity people think Americans will not watch any movie unless they think it is loaded with violence, sex, or action sequences.  I really hope that is not true!

Summary:

The darkly comic White is the most fun of the three films in the Trois Couleurs trilogy and serves as an entertaining counter-point to Blue.  It is another remarkable film in a career filled with remarkable achievements.  Highly recommended!

This concludes part two of the Trois Couleurs review.  The final part continues in Trois Couleurs: Red.