White

In the seminal The Decalogue, l988-9 (which will be shown in its entirety in the upcoming AFI/LA Film Festival, June 23-July 7), Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski probed the relevance of the Ten Commandments in contemporary modern life. After this monumental project, Kieslowski turned to a series of movies, beginning with The Double Life of Veronique, that examined facets of our spiritual existence–mysterious relationships and experiences–imbued with the power to transcend our more rational and mundane world.

Over the last three years in exile in Paris, Kieslowski has devoted his attention to the meaning of the French Revolution slogan, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” in a trilogy of films, titled Three Colors, beginning with Blue last year and continuing with White (The last installment, Red, which was shown to high praise in Cannes this year, will be released in the winter).

In all of these movies, Kieslowski presented human bonds that defy explicit or logical understanding. Fans of his works admire the evocation of a special mood, even if at times it's at the expense of a more conventional narrative. In this context, White stands out as not merely the most comedic of the Three Colors films, but also the one with the complex plot (a lot of things actually happen).

Unlike Blue and Red, White's protagonist is a man, Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a sad Polish hairdresser, whose wife Dominique (Julie Delpy) is divorcing him on grounds of impotency; she claims their marriage was never consummated. Karol becomes a destitute fugitive, a result of Dominique's vengeful nature and some other malevolent fate. But thanks to the intervention of a stranger (Janusz Gajos), Karol is able to return to Poland, where he embarks on an ambitious scheme to win back Dominique.

As the second installment in the trilogy, White is a black whimsical comedy about the dangerous distortions of the notion of equality–and love. Kieslowski has filled White with gentle comic touches, whose effectiveness depend on the talents of his leading actor. Reportedly, Zamachowski was instructed to watch Chaplin's pictures, and in many sequences his acting bears resemblance to the little tramp.

The first signal of white in the film is literally bird shit, dumped on the hero as he enters a Parisian courthouse. And the color white also features prominently in the recurrent flashback of Karol's wedding and his wife's gown.

The story begins in a courthouse in Paris and ends in a Polish jail. But unlike Blue and Red, which are entirely set in Paris, most of the narrative is set in Warsaw, which allows Kieslowski to bask in wry Eastern European absurdist humor, while considering the ideological and moral chaos of post-Communist Poland. As he demonstrated in Double Life of Veronique, Kieslowski is more comfortable–and interesting too–when he shoots in Poland (most of White is in Polish) and observes Polish conduct.

Kieslowski's films have also had a layer of political allegory and meaning, though the director always insists that his stories are personal, not political. But is it possible not to perceive White as a political parable: Its hero is a post-Communist Pole who obsessively and ruthlessly embraces the virtues (and vices) of capitalism in order to court a scornful French woman!

Kieslowski announced in Cannes this year that Red is his last picture, but I hope he changes his mind, for he is undoubtedly one of handful of master directors working in cinema toady.