The Most Overlooked Film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy Is Actually the Best

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Nov. 15 2011 7:16 AM

The White Stuff

The most overlooked film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy is actually the best.

Three Colors: White

Still from Three Colors: White courtesy of MK2 Productions.

When Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red was nominated for three Oscars in 1995, it seemed to ratify a certain attitude toward the Polish director’s “Three Colors” trilogy about love and loss in the new European Union. “ ‘Rouge’ has been touted as the film that gives weight to this whole trilogy, and it lives up to its promise,” Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times when Red premiered at Cannes, and indeed, while Blue and White were modest art-house successes, it was Red that captured the imagination of American cinema lovers, earning not only Academy recognition but more at the box office than the other two films combined.

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

Blue, starring Juliette Binoche, was viewed as exquisite but cold. White, set mostly in Poland and featuring an almost-unknown Julie Delpy, was a comic trifle. Red, meanwhile, featuring two European stars—Irène Jacob, who had won best actress at Cannes for Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique, and the French cinema hero Jean-Louis Trintignant—was the trilogy’s, and Kieslowski’s, crowning achievement. Its obsession with themes of fate and happenstance summed up the trilogy as a whole, and its conclusion brought characters from all three films together in a satisfying final flourish. That Kieslowski had kind of, sort of announced his retirement at his Cannes press conference (“But who knows?” he added puckishly) only made the praise more valedictory. When Kieslowski died only two years later, Red’s reputation was cemented in my mind and others’: It was a masterpiece, the capstone to a monumental career.

But the release this week of Criterion’s handsome and well-stuffed edition of the “Three Colors” trilogy provides a chance to reconsider the films. Seventeen years later, it’s White, the forgotten movie in the middle of the trilogy—thought inferior by many even today—that has aged the best. Kieslowski’s most personal film, it’s a sharp-edged comedy of manners—and surprisingly prescient about the struggles facing a united Europe.

That’s not to say that Blue and Red don’t chill and dazzle nearly as much as they once did. But as gorgeous as they are—and they are gorgeous, from their radiant cinematography to their stunning lead actresses—they feel hermetically sealed. In Blue, Kieslowski makes the grief of Julie (Binoche), whose composer husband dies in a car accident (along with their daughter) just before finishing his symphony celebrating Unification, deliberately hard to access. She’s shut tight until the movie’s final shot, but even that moment is ambiguous. Red, meanwhile, stages dozens of near-misses between Valentine (Jacob) and the man who’s seemingly made for her, only to throw them together in a final-shot deus ex machina that felt breathtaking on first viewing but now seems a little crass. (Not to give too much away, but that’s a pretty high body count just to get those crazy kids together, Krzyzstof.) Watching them now, Blue and Red feel like perfect closed circuits. White feels like a live wire.

“This film is about humiliation,” Kieslowski says in an interview in the White disc’s extras, pointing to the movie’s opening sequence, in which hero Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is shat upon by a pigeon on the steps of a Paris courthouse. Karol, a hairdresser recently emigrated from Poland, is at the courthouse because his French wife, Dominique (Delpy), has sued for divorce on the grounds that the marriage has not been consummated. Asked if this is true, a shame-faced Karol admits—in Polish, as he barely understands French—that since the couple moved to Paris, he’s been unable to perform.

Karol’s discomfort outside Poland mirrors Kieslowski’s. The costs of filmmaking pushed the director out of his liberated country; where once state money flowed freely (but with censors restricting what you could do with it), the new economy had little use for art. “We used to have money but no freedom,” he said, “now we’ve got freedom but no money.” In Paris, superproducer Marin Karmitz had money and wasn’t afraid to spend it to help Kieslowski make a trilogy both artful and lavish. (Karmitz humblebrags in an interview on these discs that, during Red, he was taken to the cleaners by a Geneva woman whose apartment was to be the heroine’s; Karmitz put her up in the city’s most expensive hotel, all expenses paid, for two months.)

Despite the comfort Karmitz offered, Kieslowski never felt at home outside his homeland. “I can’t imagine life without Poland,” he said in 1991. “I find it very hard to find a place for myself in the West.” That interview took place in Paris, while Kieslowski and his writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz were writing the “Three Colors” screenplays—in Polish. (Kieslowski never learned French.) His closest relationships during “Three Colors” were not with his French and Swiss actors, but with compatriots: Piesiewicz, composer Zbigniew Preisner, and his three Polish cinematographers, all of whom were more directly involved throughout the filmmaking process than is customary on Western film sets.

In White, Karol, penniless and heartsick, smuggles himself back to Warsaw in his own suitcase. When he returns to his old hair salon, he marvels at the new neon sign above the door. “This is Europe now, my friend,” his brother replies. Indeed, White serves as an introduction to the new Eastern bloc; when the film was made, only four years had passed since the ouster of Poland’s Communist government, and the country was lobbying to join the fledgling EU.*

The Poland to which Karol returns is rapaciously capitalist. “This impatience to get rich now,” Kieslowski explains about Warsaw in an interview on the Criterion discs, “the air buzzes with it.” Twice in the film, a character explains that “these days you can buy anything”—once in reference to a gun and once in reference to a corpse. Karol, working security for a penny-ante macher, overhears that IKEA plans a warehouse in a rural district outside the city. He double-crosses his boss, buying up farms in the region for quick resale. Per the trilogy's French-flag-related themes of liberté, égalité, fraternité, White explores equality—but a certain kind of equality, as Kieslowski pointed out. "I don't think anybody really wants to be equal," he said in an interview reprinted in the Criterion set's booklet. "Everybody wants to be more equal."

Soon, newly wealthy and the head of his own import-export firm, Karol’s plotting to get his ex-wife to return to Poland. I won’t give away the results of Karol’s scheme, which are wonderfully unexpected. But they demonstrate that, planted in Polish soil, Karol little resembles the wilting flower into which France transformed him. It’s a reminder that even in a united Europe, for some—like Kieslowski—the differences between nations are still stark and intractable. The current struggles of the EU to manage the economic collapses in Greece and other countries make White’s barbed comedy feel particularly timely; while it remains to be seen whether the EU can endure, it’s clear that one of the chief threats to the union is its citizens’ refusal to give up that which they view as their national birthright. (Poland’s remains one of Europe’s more robust economies—perhaps because that mercenary entrepreneurial spirit remains, or perhaps because the nation has thus far stubbornly resisted switching from the zloty to the euro.)

What’s the legacy of these three films? Many other filmmakers have adopted Red’s infatuation with coincidence and predestination; you can see Kieslowski’s DNA in directors like Alejandro González Iñárritu and Paul Thomas Anderson, Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and Quentin Tarantino. (Tarantino loved Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique and wrote the role of Bruce Willis’s wife in Pulp Fiction for Irène Jacob; she turned him down because she’d already been cast in Red. The next year, much to Tarantino’s surprise, Pulp upset Red for the Palme d’Or.) The Paris of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, with its missed connections and clockwork fate, seems like Red’s Geneva with the whimsy pushed up to 11.

But White, not Red, looks now like Kieslowski’s finest film, and unfortunately, few contemporary directors explore modern Europe as humanely and engagingly. The Dardennes (The Son) do; so does Aki Kaurismäki in his new film, Le Havre. White is funny without being cruel, romantic without lapsing into sentiment, wise without didacticism. Unlike the other two films in the trilogy, it’s more interested in raising questions than in answering them. In a documentary (also included in the Criterion collection) filmed a year before Kieslowski’s death, the interviewer asked how the new Europe might go about solving its many crises. “If I knew the answer,” the director grumbled, “I wouldn’t be sitting by some stupid fireplace, but in a president’s chair.” He shrugged. “But I don’t know. Knowing isn’t my profession. Not knowing is.”

Correction, Nov. 17, 2011: This article originally stated that Poland had just joined the EU. (Return to corrected sentence.)