Three Colours: White (1994)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 32min

At Karol’s lowest, white is the colour of bleak desolation, encasing him in a snowy garbage dump flooded with seagulls. What changes in Three Colours: White is not Krzysztof Kieslowski’s stylistic palette, but rather our perception of it. As Karol claws his way back up the ranks of society that his ex-wife, Dominique, banished him from, an alabaster bust bearing a likeness to her becomes a reminder of his end goal, a pale hotel room becomes an image of privilege, and when the two make love, Kieslowski fades to white right over her orgasm. The middle colour of the French flag, as it stands in the second instalment of Three Colours, is equality – a neutral mix of hues that restores balance where justice cannot be found, and which lends itself perfectly to the softer tone of this relatively light-hearted narrative.

An alabaster bust is the key symbol in White, carrying through a reminder of Karol’s past and future in its resemblance to Dominique.
Bleak snowy landscapes infested with pollution and dirt at Karol’s lowest.

Kieslowski calls back in Zbigniew Zamachowski and Jerzy Stuhr from Dekalog: Ten as brothers once again, playing to the former’s comedic strengths in scenes that see him resourcefully make use of what little he has to overcome obstacles. To get back to Poland from France, he smuggles himself inside a travel bag, and yet awkwardly finds himself being stolen by a group of thugs looking for money. His plot to finally get back at Dominique pays off on this ingenuity as well, involving a complicated fabrication of his own death that frames her as the murderer.

Given the vaguely comic sensibilities of White, Kieslowski does not indulge so frequently in those symbolic cutaways that he often uses to momentarily remove us from the immediate narrative, and yet when they do appear they leave a mark. Most gratifying of all is the close-up image of Karol and Dominique’s grasped hands, finally making contact again after months of separation, and this time very much as equals. It sets an even playing field for Karol’s final power play, sending her to the pits of society where she once left him to waste away. Even so, there is a sense in the final shot of Karol’s teary face that this exile may only be temporary – vengeance is only so useful in restoring balance before reconciliation organically emerges between both parties.

Kieslowski cutting to this key image of equality – two people finally on an even playing field, shot against white curtains in the background.

As we glimpse in flashbacks to Karol and Dominique’s wedding day shot through a dazzling, bleached filter, there is a pure happiness that once existed between them, as Kieslowski’s point-of-view shots gaze at her smiling face with adoration. It is misty, dreamy, and far removed from the modern day where Kieslowski’s colour scheme emerges in the architecture of train stations and courtrooms, each location carefully selected for its visual impression upon Karol’s journey. In expansive snowy landscapes, even the sun shines a plain white light across the clear sky, mirroring the pale ground in an image of equal counterparts.

Kieslowski carefully selects his locations for their decor and architecture, as they conform to his stunning white palette.

Whether through retribution or through exoneration, Kieslowski seeks a similar balance in Karol and Dominique’s contentious relationship. He deals out justice in his narrative not with emotional passion, but rather with a cool, fair judgement, finding poetic irony in the eventual reversal of fortunes. Wedged in between two more serious films in the Three Colours trilogy, White can easily be overlooked for its lighter thematic material, and yet as the centrepiece it also appropriately offers the same balance that it examines, holding them all together as a comical yet uniformly profound equaliser.

Even the sun and sky is completely white in these wonderful establishing shots.

Three Colours: White is currently streaming on Mubi and The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes.

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