WHITE *** 1/2. Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. Producer, Marin Karmitz. Written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz & Kieslowski. Photography, Edward Klosinski. Editing, Urszula Lesiak. Music, Zbigniew Preisner. Set design, Halina Dobrawolska, Claude Lenoir. Interior sets, Madgalena Dipont. Cast: Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delpy, Janusz Gajos, Jerzy Stuhr. A French-Swiss-Polish production released by Miramax. In French and Polish with subtitles. 89 minutes. Rated R (un-graphic sex and mild violence).
Polish writer-director Krzysztof Kieslowski started out with documentaries that were a strong amalgam of social reality and political and psychological analysis. The experience was later transmuted into complex fiction films before and after the Solidarity period.
Although admired by connoisseurs, he reached world-class status and a larger public only with "A Short Film About Love" and "A Short Film About Killing" and the Franco-Polish "The Double Life of Veronique." The "Short Films" were features expanded from two even shorter ones in the "Decalogue 2" (the Ten Commandments) set of 10 one-hour TV films.
Then came Kieslowki's meeting with Marin Karmitz. A wartime Jewish-Rumanian refugee in France, Karmitz is a filmmaker who, turning major exhibitor and producer, became kind of patron of quality, often non-mainstream pictures and directors. The meeting resulted his MK2 company producing Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy.
"Three Colors: White," shortened and/or imported as "White,"is the middle panel. Although subtly interconnected, the films have each their own independent life. There is absolutely no necessity to have seen one in order to make sense of the others, just as there is not any for John Ford's so-called Cavalry trilogy of westerns.
In "Blue," "White," and "Red," each title corresponds to one of the colors of the French Republic's flag and to the symbolism of that color : Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
Even so, there is no need either to take literally the application of those ideals to each film. Kieslowski, a thinking person's filmmaker and one of the rare philosophers and sociologists of the screen, can be aesthetic, realistic, devious, straightforward, complex, simple, symbolic or literal -- all in the same film.
In "Blue," the widow of a composer goes to extremes of solitude trying to reach unachievable independence. In "Red" a young model attains an odd friendship with a strange, old, retired judge."White" is by far the lightest in tone and most accessible of the three movies.
"White"'s Karol (Zamachowski) is a prize-winning Warsaw hairdresser who, love-struck by a French woman (Delpy) moves to Paris. She soon divorces him and treats him shabbily. Now a penniless bum, Karol returns to chaotic post-Socialist Poland, where -- in an illustration of "equality" -- this "clod" ( a quote) shows that he can outmaneuver others and become their equal, as well as his former wife's. There's something Orwellian about Karol as he shows that some people are more equal than others.
The lines above are vague on purpose, as the film is a constant state of flux, of twisting and turning, of surprising the movie's characters as well as its audiences. It uses several metaphors and symbols (with a light hand) and it is also full of ironical glances at contemporary, neo-capitalistic Poland, where everything can be bought or sold.
Karol's full name is Karol Karol (Charlie Charlie). Actor Zamachowski was simply instructed by his director with two words: Charlie Chaplin -- Chaplin that is, as an inspiration rather than for imitation.
Indeed Karol is a Chaplinesque figure, the tragicomic little man against the big world, the simplistic-looking hero who is anything but simple, the victim who take knocks and learns how to kick back (including kickbacks in messy Poland). He is played to perfection as the "inconspicuous" (another quote) fellow who, in a picaresque-like way, rises to great visibility.
Remarkable too is Janusz Gajos, the impassive, nice man who helps Karol to get back to Poland and becomes his partner after a splendid episode of existential angst. And the well-known Jerzy Stuhr, is physically and temperamentally an uncannily good choice for Karol's brother.
Most of "White" is shot in Poland, sad, gray land of black-markets and nouveau-riche entrepreneurs, where nothing works but everything can be made to work. Even the colors of the images are muted, oppressive, murky -- with, here and there, bits of symbolic white. .
Cleverly, the film shows glimpses of the contrasting wealth and luxury of France, but only fleetingly. Not only does it not make any marked comparisons to shabby Poland but it has its own depressing aspects of Paris.
"White" is a black comedy, a thriller, a movie of scams and entrapments, and a piece of social criticism all rolled into one intelligent, ambiguous and most entertaining whole.