Three Colours: White review – underrated black comedy could be the best of the trilogy
The overlooked middle child of Kieślowski's seminal three-parter blends twisted humour, erratic drama and dysfunctional romance
In the tenth and final episode of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog, Zbigniew Zamachowski and Jerzy Stuhr play a pair of untrustworthy brothers who inherit and – spoiler alert – squander the profits of their late father’s priceless stamp collection. A black comedy with a somewhat schmaltzy conclusion, it stands in contrast to the rest of Kieślowski’s bleak realist series.
The same can be said for Three Colours: White, which for the silliness of its lead character Karol (Zamachowski again), and its general irreverence, causes it to stick out within the acclaimed trilogy. Its lighter tone, culturally specific story, and emphasis on humour have helped make White the less loved sibling of the three-part series: as the second installment, it was the only one not to receive a nomination for the Palme d’Or, for example. Yet for my money – and, frankly, depending on my mood – it could be the best of the lot.
Karol and his brother (Jerzy Stuhr) are hairdressers, though in truth that barely matters at all. What it does mean is that Karol knows how to use a comb — crucially, attaching a strip of paper means he can use it as a musical instrument. He plays terrible traditional Polish tunes terribly on the floor of the Paris metro after losing access to his bank account in the wake of his divorce from Dominique (Julie Delpy). Attentive passerby Mikołaj (Janusz Gajos) recognises a motif of his homeland, and the two strike up a friendship that changes both their lives immeasurably. That’s Karol, and the inscrutable protagonist that Kieślowski frequently returned to, through and through. They seem to be constantly asking: “How can I use the resources immediately available to me to acquire better ones?” Aren’t we all?
Yet Karol’s handy shamelessness can’t get back what he misses most: Dominique. An unlikely march up the social ladder that seems to satirise both the kleptocracy of post-Soviet Russia and the Europeanisation of Poland in the early-1990s – Kieślowski loved to have his cake and eat it – do nothing to assuage his impotence, physical and metaphorical. Karol embraces the new era by purchasing a Volvo and making a fortune buying and reselling land destined to house an IKEA. When a swindled ex-business partner tells him he’s a “son of a bitch,” Karol says matter-of-factly: “No, I just needed the money.”
That’s a good example of White’s comic trimmings, which are far more important than its commitment to the colour scheme conceit. When Karol finds out his credit card is blocked, we see the clerk cut it with scissors. Karol sticks his hand out and winces operatically, as if stopping the chop will do anything to help. And when unpredictable (and ever-so-slightly underwritten) Dominique sets her shop on fire to frame her ex-husband in a bid to shoo him away, the first thing Karol notices is that his flies are undone. This is no accident, and grounds White in Kieślowski’s place of birth: the black comedy is perhaps the best-respected genre in Polish cinema, which is often motivated by a (wise) conviction that nothing in life is entirely serious. Especially not after fifty years in a Communist system where, the oft-repeated joke goes, workers pretended to work and employers pretended to pay them.
As always in these films, it’s colour that Kieślowski and cinematographer Edward Kłosiński take seriously. Less imaginative than the somber blues of White’s predecessor and the arresting reds that came after, in two of the most important scenes in White we prominently see… snow. The outside world is Kieślowski’s canvas here; aptly, its characters are much less interior. Karol is a simple, shallow man who performs his feelings with noise and vigour. This is no masterwork of repression à la Blue. Quite the opposite. But it’s a wild ride – and the most entertaining entry in a seminal set of films.
Three Colours: White is re-released in UK cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema from 7 April.Where to watch