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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4 Replies to “Trois Couleurs: Blanc (1994) – Krzysztof Kieslowski (Niall McArdle)”
Spot on with your conclusions Niall. I always saw this film as something of an indictment on the failed capitalism of a Poland after Communism, as well as the fact that it is always going to be seen as a poor relation of those countries that consider themselves to have a more cultural heritage. The latter part does have some satisfying ingredients, though as I am not a huge fan of humour, when it seems contrived, I felt that some of the injected comedy was a bit ‘Russian’, if you get my drift…Great review though, as we have come to expect from you!
Regards from Norfolk, Pete.
This film isn’t about politics, nor is it meant to be humorous. It is a comedy in the classic Shakespearean, topsy-turvy sense: that is, the main character is in a disadvantaged state in relation to another at the beginning and attains a superior position at the end. Sure there are moments when some may get a chuckle, Karol being shat upon by the pigeon he seems to look up at with a sense of hope as he enters the French courtroom, Karol being placed in the suitcase only to wake up at the hands of thieves, Karol playing the comb like a harmonica awfully, but scenes like these occur amidst such pathos and misery, I have trouble seeing that anyone who understands what they’re looking at would laugh at them. I fear some viewers may have been duped by its being labeled a comedy and may have gone searching for funny moments. If it is to be called a modern comedy, it is the darkest of comedies, and the humor takes a far back seat to the central drama of the story. Nor is this film about economic equality, Communism, Capitalism, or differences between east and west, Poland or France. Karol goes into the dumps in France because, well, he’s been dumped by his only love in life. He has been stripped of his manhood and revealed to be an impotent lover in front of a jury in his fiancee’s divorce proceedings against him. After debasing himself with pathetic entreaties to his obviously uninterested fiancée over the phone (one where he hears her moaning in ecstasy while she is apparently masturbating or having sex with another), his descent becomes literally complete: he shelters in the depths of the Paris subway. It is here we find out Karol is a hairdresser (emasculated Karol), and has been reduced to playing his comb for handouts.
Karol’s turnaround begins when he meets a fellow Pole (Mikolaj) who has a strange request of Karol: to help him commit suicide. When Karol successfully fools the Pole with a blank gunshot, he scares the life back into him, rekindling whatever desire Mikolaj has to live. But this sparks a real change in Karol as well. No longer impotent and abandoned by those around him, he hatches a plan to get back to Poland. Back in Poland, we discover that Karol is undergoing a metamorphosis. No longer willing to go back to his hairdressing, Karol wants more. But it isn’t money or success he’s after, these are just means of attaining his true goal: Dominique. This singular theme of the movie is represented by the broken white bust of a female which Karol brought back from France. Karol glues it back together and this piece of art, symbolic of Dominique, becomes Karol’s muse and obsession. As he stares at the bust in his room late at night we realize he, indeed, sees Dominique as a possession to be attained. Now we know Karol is not a romantic figure, but a conqueror who will do anything to attain his goal. If I have one major complaint of Kieslowski in this film, it is that the change in Karol is so sudden, for a while I was not sure if it was reality or fantasy. But it is real. Karol jumps into action, gaining meager employment with a couple of Poles in the “money” business. He overhears their plans to buy up land they know will be coveted by big developers. Karol doesn’t hesitate, investing all of his hairdressing earnings into the land, and it pays off. Karol’s confidence begins to soar; the change is revolutionary. No longer is he the meek, downcast slouching man we saw in France, but a confident striding, swaggering businessman. But all the while, he still stares obsessively at the white bust in his dingy room, concocting his masterful scheme to get Dominique back.
The third act creeps up on us. If we didn’t realize this was no ordinary romantic comedy, we know now. Karol has devised a plan to get Dominique back by willing his fortune to her and faking his own death. Here, we see that Dominique is no angel, either. She is lured to Poland by this man she despised because she realizes he is rich. But we shouldn’t just see her as selfish (nor Karol). The movie’s theme is one of control and power. She had control in France … now he has control in Poland. He was meek, now she is meek, pathetically taking Karol into her bed and ostensibly forgiving him for the emotional atrocity he committed against her. Here we get the final manifestation of Karol’s turnaround and dominance over Dominique, the orgasm. But what does he care about right after sex? Confirmation from Dominique that he gave her an orgasm better than the one he heard on the phone in France. No this is no romance, and Karol’s plan is not done. It is not enough to merely have achieved this redemption, he must own her and have her on his shelf like the white bust that symbolized her. And he gets precisely that through the endgame of his plan … her arrest. This is where Kieslowski is at his best: he actually puts Dominique on a literal shelf … we see her golden haloed, flawless face shining through her prison cell window as she beams back at him. She has obsequiously forgiven him again because she is under Karol’s control now. Now she is the despicable figure, willing to be imprisoned at the hope of being with Karol when she easily could have extracted herself by pointing the finger at him. This is no enigmatic ending, it is the completion of classic comedic turnaround. It certainly is not about the future of a post-Communist Poland. I’ve seen all of Kieslowski’s films and, while he touches on controversial subjects, he is never political per se. Certainly, a movie like “A Short Film About Killing” which is from his masterful Decalogue series, makes us think that Kieslowski the man would be against capital punishment, the movie is in no way an indictment of it.