Friday, March 19, 2010

Three Colours marathon

Trois Couleurs: Blanc (1993, Krzysztof Kieslowski)

With Three Colours: White, the viewer begins to better understand exactly what type of project writer director Kieslowski had launched himself into. The first instalment, Blue, was a refreshing, memorable and unexpected take on what freedom can mean. The sequel White,if it can be called a sequel, does much of the same and yet does so in a radically different manner. The next theme championed on the French flag is equality, but like freedom, it too can be interpreted in ways one might not necessarily think of, at least not at first.

The film opens in Paris, where a dopey and harmless looking man named Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is heading to court. His wife, Dominique (Julie Delpy) has filed for divorce. What we understand to have begun as a fantastically romantic adventure now ends in sorrow and even bitterness, especially on Dominique’s side of things. Karol, a Pole who speaks mediocre French at best, is devastated by Dominique’s emotions revealed in court and by her ruthless attitude towards him in the following days. Karol is completely and unmercifully rejected by his ex-wife, to the point where she mocks him over the phone by moaning while being pleasured by another man as Karol listens, dumfounded and distraught. The result of this breakup is tremendous inequality, as Karol has almost no money left and nowhere to live. It is only when a fellow Pole living in Paris named Mikolaj discovers him playing music with a comb (Karol is a professional hairdresser) in the subway that things start to turn around. Mikolaj helps Karol return to Poland and restart his life. Karol has much more on his mind than rebuilding his life however. With some time, careful planning and the proper funds, Karol will create a little bit of equality between Dominique and himself.

If one were to guess the type, or genre of film I’ve described above, ‘drama’ is the one genre that would cross most peoples minds. Kieslowski is cleverer than that however, and instead of giving the viewer a desperately bleak affair, with the central character of Karol being the center of all the bad luck and on the receiving end of everyone’s ruthless behaviour, he sows together a dark comedy, a film not without several appropriate dramatic beats, but one that will leave the viewer smiling on many an occasion.

The source of the peculiarly light-hearted nature of many scenes is to be found in their setup and the characters that inhabit them. Zbigniew Zamachowski’s facial features and naturally friendly nature lend the character of Karol such a demeanour that one can’t help but feel we are in the presence of an all around decent human being. He has been wronged and is afflicted with a thirst for vengeance, and despite the fact that his ultimate plan on striking back at Dominique is indeed harsh as some might put it, I couldn’t help but cheer him on during the entire journey. There is a dopey but lovable look to the actor which suits the growth of the character within the context of this story. In the early goings we don’t think Karol will display enough courage, wit or cunning in order to put forth in motion his plan. This is sometimes due to his funny and uncomfortable demeanour (the ‘stranger in a strange land’ setting helps in this regard) , at other times due to his terrible misfortune. We witness a rapid series of events which not only make it clear that Karol’s luck has run out, but that even in his attempts to earn a fighting chance, such as his failed seduction of Dominique in her store one morning before she has him flee from the authorities, this man is pretty much worthless. Zamachowski’s performance is one that shines for its many comical elements, but there is an intelligence and a courage which belies his harmless facial features. I think it's precisely this intelligence which delivers an added layer of quality to Karol’s journey and our appreciation, or at very least our fascination with the character. While earlier in the film there may have been some pity felt towards him, about halfway through we begin to understand that there is far, far more to this man than we believed. Director Krzysztof Kieslowski is quite clearly fascinated with creating characters that can elicit many emotions and thoughts from the audience. On a more surface level, Karol is a kind and sadly unfortunate soul who requires our support, but once the full extent of his intentions towards Dominique are exposed, there is a definite malice behind the man’s actions. ‘An eye for an eye’ or ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’ and so forth. I shan’t fully reveal what it is he does to his former wife, but suffice to say that it is very cold, borderline evil. So why do I still feel an attachment towards Karol, even during the bittersweet final moments of the White? Ah, well, that is the magic of great acting and storytelling.

The comedic quality of White is also in plain sight in the setup and evolution of many sequences. Shortly after meeting Mikolaj in the Paris subway, the two begin to better understand one another and become so enwrapped in their sudden friendship that there is sense that they no longer pay attention to the fact they are sitting on a bench in the subway. Card tricks, drinking straight from the bottle, Karol even does Mikolaj’s hair! As with its predecessor, the titular colour is very throughout the film, but its first appearance is an oozing drop of bird dung which lands on Karol’s shoulders. The fascinating thing about all of this is in how such silly oddball moments fit in perfectly with the rest of the film. It isn’t at all a case of a film trying desperately to find a just balance in tone but never quite attains it. On the contrary, Kieslowski appears to pull all of this off effortlessly.

The golden nugget in White is its treatment of the theme of equality. Once more we witness Kieslowski take a much cherished and of course worthy ideal from the French flag and puts a drastic spin on it. Karol fights for equality and so he should, but what sort of equality is he fighting for exactly? The opening scenes suggest that we are about to witness a story of an immigrant’s fight for equality in a new country where his rights are currently limited, but that is not even close to the notion of equality White is mainly concerned with. The equality of White is on a more personal level, one that reaches into interpersonal relationships, the difficulty in satisfying two peoples emotions equally and how easily we humans forget that even in the darkest of scenarios, a little of respect and equality is required by both parties, otherwise rash decisions are made which in turn lead to harsh reactions. Like the best films, such assessments are always open to interpretation and someone may very well discover another aspect to the ‘equality’ studied in the film. That’s also what sets Kieslowski apart from many other filmmakers. He displays an ability to continuously suggest with ever telling the viewer something specific. Every scene is filled with enough information and clues to chew and ponder on, but rarely can we quickly and with certainty arrive at a definitive conclusion.

There is no Three Colours trilogy without the inimitable effort from score composer Zbiniew Preisner . How in heaven’s name that man succeeded in creating scores that simultaneously suggested they were part of the same series but also retained their perfectly unique individuality is beyond me. That’s without even mentioning how simply beautiful and memorable the music is. Whenever the main theme for White began to kick in there was a ridiculously wide grin on my mug, each and every time.

Kieslowski takes some unexpected turns in White in regards to the tone and mood, which sets it apart from the rest of the trilogy, but makes it no less an effective piece of cinema. I suspect that one could make a case for White being Kieslowski’ mainstream film (I wonder how many people cringed just now). It has a more straightforward plot than many of his other films, has an easily lovable central character and often goes for outright comedy. Make no mistake however, Three Colours: White is still a prime example what can result of art and cinema crashing into one another to make sweet, sweet love.


Anonymous said...

A mainstream Kieslowski film? Yea, maybe that's a bit too far. But I do think White is his most accessible film.

Once again, I think you've covered all of what makes this film great. It always disappoints me that most Kieslowski fans seem to kind of shrug off or disregard this film because it's not as serious or artistic as the rest of the trilogy. But of the three it's the most fun and the one I'm most likely to pop into the DVD player.

And yet it still ends up being just as serious and mystical and devastating as the rest of the trilogy.

edgarchaput said...

That final scene has so many thematic elements. I never get tired of it.

There is the possibility that he has forgiven Dominique and that her marriage proposal touches him, however I like to toy with a slightly different idea.

If 'White' is about equality, then we have just witnessed someone, Karol, try to fight for some equality by getting back at his wife, but who has gone too far in the process. It could easily be argued that by the end of the film he has outdone Dominique in terms of evildoing, and therefore in his attempt to find equality throuh vengeance, he has turned himself into an even greater monster. That tear down his cheek at the end is a recognition of this. It's one thing to demand justice (equality) for wrong doing, but it is another thing to escalate thing to such an incredible degree, which essentially destroys 'equality' in the process.

Essentially, in a film about equality, we witness a man who has missed the point entirely. It's like the movie is showing us what equality is by demonstrating what equality shouldn't be.