Synopsis: After his divorce from a Parisian woman, a Polish man returns to Warsaw, becomes a successful businessman, and sets about taking revenge on her.
After ‘Bleu’ explored the idea of personal liberty, Kieslowski and collaborator Krzysztof Piesewicz move on to the theme of equality: personal, political and economic. ‘Blanc’ is probably the most overtly political film in the Trilogy, even though Kieslowski claimed he wasn’t a political filmmaker. It is set mostly in Poland after the fall of Communism, a country rife with newfound capitalism and corruption. It’s also the funniest of the three films, although the humour is quite dark.
It begins in Paris at the same moment that Julie from ‘Bleu’ enters the courthouse – Juliette Binoche is briefly seen in the background as a Polish husband, Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is pleading with the judge not to grant a divorce from his French wife, Dominique (Julie Delpy). Shabbily dressed in frumpy clothes and a cheap raincoat (a pigeon has just shat on him), and struggling with his poor French, Karol stands little chance of stopping the divorce – “where’s the equality? Is my not speaking French a reason for the court to refuse to hear my case?” – especially after the beautiful, composed Dominique tells the court matter-of-factly that the marriage was never consummated because Karol is impotent. She leaves (in her white car), giving him nothing except his trunk.
Humiliated, miserable and broke, he sleeps in the Metro, playing music on his comb (he’s a hairdresser by trade), until he meets a fellow Pole, Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos), a rather melancholic figure, who offers him the chance to make some money by killing somebody who no longer wants to live. They then have a plan to smuggle Karol back to Poland in the suitcase. That plan goes awry as the trunk is stolen by thieving baggage handlers at Warsaw Airport, and Karol is beaten up and dumped in the snow. “Jesus. Home at last,” he says, a half-smile on his face, as he looks at the sight of gulls circling a rubbish heap.
Karol is home, but this is the new Poland. The Communists are gone and in their place are gangsters and opportunists. Warsaw has a shabby put-together feel; there are no beauty shots of the city, and even the snow that covers everything is not pure-white. In the spirit of capitalism (a system where in theory everyone has an equal right to make money), Karol works as a sort-of bodyguard for a crook involved in illegal currency trading.
Hearing of an opportunity to get some land cheap if he can raise the money, he takes up Mikolaj on the murder job. It turns out that Mikolaj is the one who wants to die, but the film never explains the reason for his misery. In any event, Karol deliberately shoots him with a blank, which somehow makes Mikolaj reconsider his life (“I feel like a kid again. Everything is possible”). They get drunk and slide around on the ice. There’s an awful lot of drinking in ‘Blanc’.
Within a few months, Karol has become a successful and wealthy businessman. What his company does is not clear – it seems to be everything from construction to import-export, and it’s probably less than legitimate. But success means little without love (an echo of a theme from ‘Bleu’), and Karol is still hopelessly in love with Dominque. Or perhaps he’s only in love with the idea of her: with her alabaster skin and cool, blond beauty, she is as much a fantasy as the bust of Marianne (the ideal of France) that Karol has brought back with him from Paris. His memory of her is of her white veil on their wedding day, and he can’t quite bring himself to throw away the last of his French money.
What makes ‘Blanc’ stand out is where the story goes at this point. Most romances would have the changed hero doing whatever it takes to win back the girl. Karol doesn’t want to win her back – at least, he claims he doesn’t. Instead he wants revenge. He fakes his death and frames her for the murder. That this is both tragic and funny is testament to the script and the actors.
Karol is a comic character, and it helps that Zamachowski has a background in comedy. Much of the film is broadly funny, and with his little body and childlike face, he is a pathetic but determined clown. He is, of course, a stand-in for Poland itself, a little country struggling to make something of itself, a bumpkin cousin of the elegant and sophisticated France, personified by Dominique. She humiliates him in court and later on the telephone, forcing him to listen as she climaxes in the arms of another man. It is only after Karol has faked his own death and witnessed her tears at his funeral that he is capable of making love to her. Her orgasm is so intense the screen goes white as she screams. Afterwards, when the police arrest her, there is a reversal of the opening scene, with Dominique now in need of a translator. It’s not a coincidence in this scene that she is draped in a sheet as Marianne would be, and the sheet is blood red, the colour of the final film in the trilogy.
White of course is the predominant colour of the film: snow, ice, an empty office, Karol’s undershirt, a wedding dress, confetti, Dominique’s pale skin. There’s a lot of voyeurism (as there is in ‘Bleu’ and especially ‘Red’). The ending is enigmatic: there are tears but there’s a glimmer of hope; you have to wonder exactly what future Karol and Dominique have. In that respect ‘Blanc’ is quite prescient about the future of Europe.
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