"The day I can buy toilet paper in a Polish store, I'll discuss politics," Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski once stated in an interview in 1989, a little more than two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Maybe Kieslowski held off on his political thoughts because he became sly when subtly presenting them when shooting his sardonic and darkly humorous Three Colors: White in 1993; suggesting that things have changed after the post Communist years, and to become a successful Polish consumer one must involve themselves in such things as a handgun and a Russian corpse. Karol Karol a sexually potent Polish hairdresser has reached the bottom of the barrel and pathetically tries to make money by performing in the Paris Metro by using his pocket comb as an instrument to inspire donations. He has barely survived a humiliating divorce, and is so desperately homesick in Paris that he devises a plan to be sent back to Warsaw by curling up in inside a suitcase. His friend at the other end watches the airport conveyor belt with horror as the bag is not there, as baggage thieves open up the one with Karol still inside, and are bitterly disappointed to find a man completely broke, and so they savagely beat him casting him aside onto a bitterly cold rubbish heap. Bloody but triumphant, Karol surveys the grim landscape of Poland and says, "Jesus...home at last."
After opening with a brief, seemingly irrelevant scene of a suitcase on an airport carousel, (the story will come back to that later) the story quickly focuses on Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) looking for a Paris courthouse for a divorce hearing. Unfortunately before entering pigeons lay droppings on his suit.
During the court proceedings Karol pleads with the judge saying, "I need time your honor. I want to save our marriage."(The character Julie from Three Colors: Blue played by Juliette Binoche can be seen in the background accidently stumbling into the court proceedings but is quietly told to leave.)
The immigrant Karol, despite his difficulty in understanding French, is made to understand that his wife Dominique (Julie Delpy) does not love him. She says to the judge, "I used to love him. I don't love him anymore." The grounds for divorce are humiliating: Karol was unable to consummate the marriage, while Karol has beautiful flashbacks of their wedding. After losing the hearing Karol goes to the restroom to gag into the toilet.
Karol loses his means of support (a beauty salon they jointly owned), his legal residency in France, his account is frozen and his credit card's are destroyed. Now a beggar on the street Karol watches an elderly man trying to recycle a bottle but cannot reach the container and Karol looks at him with a sinister grin on his face. (These sequences of the elderly people are a link between all three films in the Three Color trilogy).
Dominique one afternoon arrives back at her apartment and sees Karol sleeping on her couch. She's about to call the police put Karol stops her. Karol asks Dominique to come to Poland with her, but she tells him she would never leave with him saying, "I'll win every trial. The divorce, the property settlement, everything. If I say I love you, you don't understand. And if I say I hate you, you still don't understand. You don't even understand that I want you, that I need you. You understand? Do I scare you now?" Dominique suddenly takes a lighter and starts to light the place on fire saying, "You came here for revenge. You set the place on fire. Soon every cop in Paris will be after you." Karol quickly flees Dominique's apartment.
Karol becomes a beggar in a Paris Métro station, performing songs for spare change by using his comb as a musical instrument. Karol meets and is befriended by another Pole, Mikolaj who says to him, "Your flys open." Karol asks how Mikolaj knew he was Polish and Mikolaj says because of the song he was playing. "You make your living with that comb?" Mikolaj asks.
The two begin to bond and while Karol cuts Mikolaj's hair, Mikolaj offer's Karol a job. The job offer consists of Karol killing someone who wants to be dead but does not have enough courage to do it himself. "A fellow countryman," Mikolaj says. "He'll pay well. Enough to live on for six months." Karol asks why he can't kill himself. Mikolaj says, "He wants to, but can't. He has a wife and children who love him. Can you imagine how they'd feel? This way, someone kills him and it's over."
Karol shows Mikolaj his wife's apartment but he seems to be attracted more to the billboard of Bridgette Bourdette promoting Godard's Contempt. Karol tells Mikolaj that Dominique probably has gone to bed, until the two notice that in the window another man is there. Karol calls Dominique on a payphone and she answers in the middle of the act of sex stating, "Good timing. Listen." After listening to Karol's orgasms Karol hangs up the payphone but the payphone booth takes his 2 franc coin. Karol furiously asks the attendant to give him back a 2 franc coin from the payphone, which is one of the objects Karol will hold on to throughout the film.
"You're taking me to Poland," Karol says to Mikolaj. Through a hazardous scheme, Milolaj helps Karol return to Poland hidden in the suitcase shown at the beginning of the film, as it runs on an airport carousel as Mikolaj waits for the luggage in Poland. The suitcase is unfortunately stolen and when Mikolaj reports it to airport security he is asked what the contents were inside the suitcase. He lies and says clothes and when security asks, "165 pounds worth?" Dominique then comes clean and says, "To tell the truth, my friend was inside."
Baggage thieves are shown in a barren cold landscape of Poland opening up all the stolen suitcases. They than open up the one with Karol still inside, and are bitterly disappointed to find only a man inside, completely broke, and beat him casting him aside onto a bitterly cold rubbish heap. Bloody but optimistic, Karol surveys the grim landscape of Poland and says, "Jesus...home at last."
Karol arrives in town beaten and worn down and finally runs into his brother (Jerzy Stuhr) who is also a hairdresser. "You bought a neon sign," Karol says to him when admiring his brother's hair salon sign. "This is Europe now," his brother tells him.
Karol agrees to do a few heads every day at his brother's solon, meanwhile looking around for opportunities in Poland. Karol takes a job as a bodyguard in a seemingly innocent cash exchange office and is given a gun that shoots tear gas. Karol rises as a somewhat shady capitalist working, scheming, cheating, making bank notes while admiring a plaster bust of Marianne, which probably reminds him of Dominique back in Paris.
Karol eagerly learns that acres of sleepy farmland are just begging to be turned into an outlet as money itself is meant to be bought and sold. Karol goes to a payphone to try to track down Mikolaj, but not before locking himself in the booth. Mikolaj finally meets up with Karol and Karol asks him if his friend in Paris still wants the suicide job done. Mikolaj says that the man is back in Warsaw now, and that he is very interested.
Mikolaj meets Karol in a Warsaw Metro tunnel for the execution of the suicide, but it turns out to be that Mikolaj is the intended victim. Karol pulls out a gun saying, "These days you can buy anything." Karol shoots a blank into Mikolaj's chest having him collapse in Karol's arms from shock. Carol then says, "The first one was a blank. The next one is for real. Are you sure?" Mikolaj this time refuses and says that he feels alive again as the two slip and fall laughing on the ice barren landscape.
Using his position as a deceptively foolish bodyguard at the cash exchange office, Karol spies on his bosses and discovers their scheme to purchase different pieces of land that they knew were going to be targeted by big companies for development and resell for large profits. Karol beats them to it, and when they come to Karol's brother's home to threaten Karol, he tells his ex-bosses that if they kill him all his estate shall go to the Church.
His ex-bosses are therefore forced to purchase all the land from Karol as he charges them ten times what Karol originally paid for. With the money he gained from this scheme and with the payment from Mikolaj, a now wealthy Karol one day approaches Mikolaj and says, "I'm starting a company. Big-time. Thirty percent of the capital came from the money you gave me, so like it or not, you're a joint owner." Karol asks Mikolaj if he could run the business with him, and the agree to go into business (of a vaguely defined but possibly illegal nature) together.
"Warsaw at our feet," Karol tells Mikolaj. Karol becomes ruthlessly ambitious, focusing his energies on money-making schemes while learning French and brooding over his wife's abandonment. One evening Karol calls Dominique up, but she quickly hangs up on him, and so he has a will made up, that reads that all his money and bank accounts are to be left for Dominique. Karol uses his new financial influence in a world where, as several characters observe, "you can buy anything" to execute a complex scheme to destroy Dominique's.
By doing this Karol fakes his own death be using a body that is already beyond body identification, whose head was crushed from leaning too far from a streetcar window. When heard Karol has died Dominique is forced to travel to Warsaw to attend the funeral, and Karol watches from afar and notices Dominique crying at the ceremony.
The evening after the funeral, Dominique returns to her hotel room and finds Karol in her bed waiting for her. Karol asks Dominique why she cried at his funeral. Dominique says, "Because you were dead." Karol then has sex with Dominique that evening and afterwards he says, "You moaned louder than on the phone."
That next morning Karol leaves without saying goodbye and Dominique now in love with him again calls Mikolaj and asks where Karol is. Mikolaj says that Karol is dead and she was at his funeral. There's a knock at Dominique's door and at first Dominique believes Karol has returned. It is instead police officers who have a search warrant and who arrest Dominique for the murder of Karol. Since Karol's entire estate was left to Dominique in his will it establishes a motive for her to have murdered him, plus the freudian work on Dominique's passport which places her in Warsaw on the day of Karol's death.
This time Dominique is on foreign soil unable to defend herself, and is immediately arrested. Dominique is wrongfully imprisoned for Dominique's murder as the final image of the film shows Karol staring at Dominique through the window of her prison cell, while the both of them cry signing their love for one another.
Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski had made most of his early work in Poland during the Cold War, which includes his 10 one-hour film masterpiece The Decalogue which are ten separate stories loosely based on the ten commandments. In 1991 he than directed The Double Life of Veronique, which is a beautifully shot parable on the mysterious nature of identity, love and human intuition. Kieslowski than created one of the greatest, if not, the greatest film trilogy in the world with The Three Color trilogy. He shot Blue and White in September of 1992 and finished with Red in May of 1993, shortly announcing afterwards his retirement. Kieslowski tragically died of heart failure in 1996 at the young age of 54, and yet he is now listed with the same recognition as other legendary film directors like Bergman, Ozu, Bunuel, Fellini, Ford, Bresson or Chaplin. With just a short span of films, Kieslowski has created some of the most spiritual and life affirming films in the world, often dealing with such existential themes as illness, death, loss and morality.
Director Krzysztof Kieslowski created the Three Color trilogy with co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who also collaborated with Kieslowski on The Decalogue. Kieslowski’s Three Color trilogy corresponds to the three hues of the French tricolor, and also to the French national principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Kieslowski assumed that these colors responded to the French Revolution (liberty, equality, fraternity), only later did he learn that it was not the case, but kept the colors for the film titles. Blue, the first film of the trilogy is said to refer to liberty, and is generally said to be an anti-tragedy, just as White is anti-comedy and Red is an anti-romance. White looked at as an anti-comedy is highly understandable, since many sequences are darkly comic and ironic, while the ending itself is quite dramatic and tragic. The most comedic scene in the film is when Karol returns to Poland hidden in a suitcase which gets stolen by thieves at the airport and Mikolaj has to report the incident to airport security coming clean and saying, "To tell the truth, my friend was inside." When the Baggage thieves find Karol inside one of the briefcases they are bitterly disappointed to find him completely broke, and beat him casting him aside onto a bitterly cold rubbish and barren heap. Bloody but optimistic, Karol surveys the grim landscape of Poland and says, "Jesus...home at last." This highly preposterous and yet extremely comedic sequence is one of the best scenes of the film, and gives off a sardonic and darkly oddball Coen brother's feel to an already offbeat and unusual story.
To understand Three Colors: White is to understand the state of Poland at the time the film was made and how it drastically changed during the Post Communist years. Just after Kieslowski made The Decalogue, the Polish Communist government collapsed and Poland went through a sudden change, as The Soviet Union no longer controlled an entire Eastern block of countries and Poland was suddenly on its own to fight for some kind of new democratic status. In many ways this changed director Kieslowski and his way of making films, having working under Communism most of his life, he saw it as an obligation to attack the system using sardonic wit and irony. After 1989 when the Soviet Union empire collapsed there was no state funding and the film industry in Poland had to learn to stand on its two feet. It was largely because of that Kieslowski moved to France and took up funding from the French. Kieslowski no longer had a communist state to attack and the director found himself in a situation where he had to make films for an international audience. The Double Life of Veronique was the first attempt for him to do that and it was a story that was a contrast for both Poland and France by doubling its central character and giving her a Polish and French identity.
The Three Color trilogy picks up this theme and the Three Color: White picks up right in the middle, in which Kieslowski confronts the changes in Poland immediately after the fall of Communism. The Poland he portrayed in Three Color: White was a lawless country that seemed to rush to catch up with the rest of Europe, observing the gap and inequality compared to a country like France and Kieslowski presents the difficulties that Poland had experienced when modernizing its economy and culture to the rest of Western Europe. Kieslowski summarizes that theme of inequality perfectly in the film when Karol first arrives to Poland and after a devious route reconnects with his brother in Warsaw. Immediately Karol notices his brother's neon sign he has for the business. "You got a neon sign," Karol says to him. His brother responds by saying, "This is Europe now, my friend." Karol knew this and obviously so did Kieslowski. The film also carries a political subtext, in which Karol's impotence and financial helplessness in France, and subsequent rise as a somewhat shady capitalist in Warsaw, mirror the attempts of Poland to advance from its disadvantaged position within Europe.
Kieslowski is suggesting a 'contempt' that the French had for Poland and its less developed and backward neighbor in Eastern Europe who were grasping to catch up with the European union. That feeling of contempt of inequality and fraternity can be a reason Kieslowski presents the gigantesque poster of Brigitte Bardot for Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt in the film, which is located right beside Dominique's apartment complex. Kieslowski explores the new realities of Poland, of entrepreneurism, crime and immorality. "Anything can be bought," which is something several character's state throughout the film. Dominique seems to hate the country of Poland as much as Karol himself as she shouts early in the film, "I'll never go back to Poland!" And seems truly enraged immediately when Karol suggests taking her to Warsaw. She is so enraged in fact that she sets fire to the curtains causing Karol to flee the country.
Three Colors: White also explores the balance between love and hate, as the main protagonist is a foreigner lost in a more educated city, who already feels defeated and has lost his sexually potency. His ex-wife Dominique strips Karol of his possessions, the roof over his head and even his identity (he doesn't have a passport.) As cruel as she is, Karol still loves Dominique and will respond by setting up a trap to humiliate her in return. Karol is symbolically triumphant when he has Dominique finally come to him in Warsaw and he succeeds when finally bringing her to orgasm. The imprisonment and humiliation of Dominique reawakens her love for Karol, and it does for him as well. (Interestingly many of the scenes that have been cut are of Karol having second thoughts on framing and entrapping Dominique.) Three Colors: White presents such themes on the conditions of how love and hate can coexist and that a relationship between a Polish man and a French woman is a large metaphor to France and Poland.
Like the other films in the Three Color Trilogy, White's cinematography makes heavy use of the title color: from the sky, to pigeon shit, the bridal veil, snow, and the scene in Poland where Karol emerges from a briefcase is filmed in a bleak and white barren snowscape, which looks more like a frozen garbage dump. There are three flashback images throughout the film, all using extreme heavy contrast of the color white. Each of the three flashbacks involve Karol and Dominique's wedding day, the first one appears in the courtroom and it feels as if its Karol's flashback, the second time it feels more like Dominique's flashback, the third time it seems to be Karol's but when he suddenly enter's the frame himself, the audience realizes it is not. This type of teasing that Kieslowski uses discourages the viewer in taking everything that Kieslowski gives to them at face value. The first shot of the film is seemingly irrelevant as it shows a sequence of a suitcase on an airport carousel, as the story quickly changes to a battered looking Karol struggling to find the Paris courthouse. We won't find out the meaning of the opening of the briefcase at the airport until at least 25 minutes through the story. When we finally see the briefcase theme reappear later in the story it still doesn't give us an explanation why Kieslowski placed it in the beginning of the film, but at least it gives the audience a realization of its proper place in the narrative.
The name Karol Karol is a form of mirroring and symmetry that seems to be a theme throughout the film. For example: Mikolaj wants to die and then later changes his mind, Karol fakes his death and he changes his mind and doesn't fly to Hong Kong. Mikolaj hires Karol to carry out a hit standing on a Paris metro platform, then later when Karol pretends to carry out the hit they are standing near a Warsaw subway line. In the wedding dream sequences confetti falls from the sky, and yet pigeon shit falls from the sky at a divorce. A payphone in Paris takes your money, another one in Warsaw locks a person in the booth. There are two guns in the film, one that shoots only tear gas, two caskets, two fake passports with one getting shredded, and two resurrections, one of Karol's and one of Mikolaj when the fear of sudden death gives him a reason to want to live again. And like his name 'Karol Karol, they're two Karol's in the story, one who is weak, poor and sexually inadequate, the second one manifests itself later in the film portraying a powerful, confident man who can successfully achieve sexually potency. A larger ambiguity is the symbolic use of the comb, as Karol uses it as a harmonica when begging on the subway, and then later in the film Karol looks through the comb when plotting Dominique's imprisonment. The comb is also a metaphor to Karol and his family profession as a hair dresser.
A common symbol to the Three Color Trilogy is that of identity and an underlying link or thing that keeps the protagonist linked to his/her past. In the case of White Karol forms a new and successful identity when arriving to Warsaw, and the items that link Karol to his past in Paris are of a 2 Fr. coin and a plaster bust of Marianne that he steals from an antique store in Paris. The coin inexplicably sticks to his hand when he tries to throw it away, and he keeps it until he buries it with his corpse suggesting a form of rebirth with his new-found identity. In the case of Red the judge never closes or locks his doors and his fountain pen, which stops working at a crucial point in the story. In the case of Blue it is a lamp decoration of blue beads from Julie's deceased daughter, a recurring image of people falling while bungee jumping or sky diving, and how Julie tries to erase all traces of her former identity by ridding everything from her past including family and friends.
Another recurring image related to the spirit of the Three Color Trilogy is that of elderly people recycling bottles: In Three Colors: Blue, an elderly women is trying to deposit a bottle in a street trash-recycling bin, but the slot is a little too high for her to reach, and Julie does not see her (in the spirit of freedom), in Three Colors: White, an old man also in Paris is trying to recycle a bottle but cannot reach the container and Karol looks at him with a sinister grin on his face (in the spirit of equality) and in Three Colors: Red an old woman cannot reach the hole of the container and Valentine helps her (in the spirit of fraternity). Another scene features a link with the last film in the trilogy: is the character Julie from Three Colors: Blue played by Juliette Binoche, who can be seen in the background accidently stumbling into the court proceedings of Karol and his ex-wife in Paris in the beginning of Three Colors: White, and is quietly told to leave. (Three Colors: Blue was released before Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, even though Pulp Fiction usually gets the credit as being one of the first films to intertwine several different story threads that link to one another.) Another fascinating part of the Three Color Trilogy, is that Blue's central character is a woman, White's central character is a man, and Red's central character is a man and a woman. This might have something to say about Poland, as it didn't produce as many lead actresses then France had produced at that time. The three films in the trilogy also could be just as easily distinguished by the color of each lead actresses hair, and call the films Brunette, Blonde, Redhead.
Three Colors: White sets itself apart from the other two of the trilogy because of its sardonic humor and lightness, as Kieslowski claims that each part of the trilogy represents a color of the French flag and is promulgated by the French Revolution, with Blue for liberty, White is for equality and Red is for fraternity. Inequality is a point that Karol makes in the beginning of the film at the divorce hearing when he states after losing, "Where is the equality? Is my not speaking French a reason for the court not to hear me?" Karol achieves a form of equality at the end of the film, when he successfully achieves his revenge on his ex-wife, wrongfully imprisoning her for his supposed murder. And yet her imprisonment and humiliation seem to reawaken Dominique's love for Karol, and it seems to do the same for him. The final image of the film shows Karol staring at Dominique through the window of her prison cell, while the both of them cry signing their deep love and yearning for one another. Three Colors: White is the middle part of a trilogy, and whatever Kieslowski has to say about love, morality, loss, is not going to be truly completed until he finishes the trilogy with Red. However Three Colors: White is an interesting perspective on Poland, lawlessness, love and hate. White suggests that equality is a façade and few people ever achieve it, and to be successful a person will probably have to plot, cheat, and scheme to achieve ones goals in a post Communist society.