Bookended as it is by Blue and Red, the second film in Kieslowski’s liberty/equality/fraternity trilogy is a welcome relief from the sometimes tragic sensibility of the other two films. White is about post-Communist Poland. It is about the tricks that hold up our own quests for “equality” (is there really such a thing outside of mathematics?). But most of all, it’s a love story.
Of course, all three of the films are love stories in a way; but Blue is a love story that ends as the film begins, and Red is a love story once removed. White is a story about stubborn love, a sort of codependent relationship that endures despite the best efforts of both lovers. Zbigniew Zamachowski plays Karol Karol, the impotent hairdresser who is abandoned in Paris by wife Julie Delpy. Unable to support himself, the spurned lover eventually returns to his native Poland, smuggling himself in inside a friend’s suitcase. Seething with resentment, he makes a fortune in his newly capitalist homeland, and then sets off on an elaborate plan to revenge himself on his wife. Kieslowski makes some wry observations about the nature of capitalism and the lust for “easy money.” Karol doesn’t simply want to make himself the financial equal of his wife; he wants to become “more equal” than she is. That being the case, it’s not enough for him simply to make a fortune. He wants to humiliate her, as well.
He manages that, but the circumstances are an idiosyncratic delight. White isn’t lofty enough to avoid an occasional detour into sober, existential territory, but the side trips add a little weight to the story, which is at heart a marriage farce. The sublime Zamachowski pulls his best Chaplin routine here, and it pays off charmingly. It’s no surprise that Delpy is radiant, and plays the ice queen well (my favorite shot of Delpy is still her cameo in Red, where all three films touch briefly). In most ways, this film is the least of the trilogy — White is so conciliatory that it threatens to float away. But at the end, it’s anchored by a Chaplinesque moment of revelation that justifies our attention and respect, and this film’s solid place in Kieslowski’s admirable trilogy.