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Three Colours: White (1994) – Bitches Ain’t Shit…

July 14, 2011

There are words that yield far more easily to the lips than they do to the mind. Every day, we reach for a set of shared values and concepts which, laid down in another place and another time, no longer seem as well defined as they used to be.  Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy springs from a desire for clarification, to return to the revolutionary French values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity and ask: What do they mean for us today?

Three Colours: White is the second film in the trilogy and its conceptual slipperiness reflects the fact that equality is one of our least understood values.  We all want to live in an equal society but do we really understand what equality entails and where in our society should the value of equality assert itself? Does a commitment to equality entail a commitment to equality of outcomes or of opportunities? Or are we talking instead about the creation of a society in which everyone is equally happy and/or equally miserable? Three Colours: White explores the dubious morality of a pursuit of emotional parity.

As with Three Colours: Blue, White opens with images of a technological underworld in the form of suitcases on conveyor belts. These conveyor belts receive their burdens and carry them to their destination with neither grace nor favour; they are blindly efficient and scrupulously fair. From there we move to the law courts where everything is supposed to be fair but manifestly isn’t. Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is being divorced from his wife Dominique (Julie Delpy) due to his inability to consummate the marriage. While the judge is supposed to weigh the evidence on both sides and pronounce a dispassionate verdict, Kieslowski goes out of his way to create a sense of injustice by having Dominique’s point of view introduced to us through the judge’s questioning. Asked to respond to his wife’s complaints and accusations, Karol finds himself having to communicate through his ineffectual lawyer who successfully translates the man’s words but none of his sentiments resulting in the judge finding for Dominique.

His accounts frozen and his ex-wife entirely unsympathetic to his psychological difficulties (she goes so far as to keep him on the phone while she has sex with another man), Karol is forced onto the street where he winds up being shipped back to Poland in a suitcase by a man who wants him to help someone commit suicide. At this point, Kieslowski returns us to the conveyor belts and shows us Karol being ‘fairly’ and ‘dispassionately’ shipped back to Poland where he is promptly stolen, beaten-up and left in a field. When Karol emerges from his suitcase he is found to have only a bust of La Marianne, thereby hinting at the source of Karol’s problems with his wife.

During the divorce, Karol explains that his inability to have sex with his wife only emerged after the couple got married.  The fact that Karol chose to take with him only a bust of La Marianne and a two-franc piece suggests that this problem may well be due to the fact that, after their marriage, he placed Dominique on a pedestal that made it impossible for him to relate to her as a real woman.  The choice of a bust of La Marianne is telling as La Marianne is a symbol not only of the French feminine ideal (the French government traditionally use a popular French actress as the basis for their Mariannes) but also of such French values as Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Somehow, in Karol’s mind, his wife has become a symbol whose psychological power is beautifully communicated through the use of a memory fragment from Karol and Dominique’s wedding.  How can anyone be expected to fuck a symbol? A goddess? The film’s emotional heart lies in Karol’s ever-changing and profoundly ambiguous emotional attitude towards that symbol.

Humiliated, beaten and reduced to working in his brother’s hairdressing salon, Karol sets about rebuilding a life for himself in Poland.  Here we see the film engaging with the American idea of equality as an equality of opportunity; Poland is the Wild West in so far as even a man as penniless and wretched as Karol is free to make a fortune, which he promptly does by outwitting a pair of dubious Polish businessmen.  Having built up a financial empire, Karol puts the second phase of his plan into operation.

Leaving his fortune to Dominique, Karol uses a network of underworld contacts to help him fake his own death and when Dominique arrives in Poland to attend the funeral, Karol appears in her hotel room in order to have sex with her before disappearing off to Hong Kong.  The following morning, as she basks in the post-orgasmic glow, Dominique is awoken by the Polish police who arrest her for the murder of her ex-husband. Unfairly robbed of her freedom, Dominique is further humiliated by her insistence that her husband in alive despite the fact that she agreed to become the beneficiary of his will.

The film ends with a distorted recapitulation of the scene in which Karol was forced to confront the fact that his wife was having sex with another man. Trapped outside of his real life just as Dominique is now trapped in prison, Karol looks through a pair of binoculars as Dominique signals her love and devotion to him. Now the couple are equal: Both love each other, both are miserable, both are separated from the other and both have been humiliated and deprived of their freedom. As the credits roll and tears run down Karol’s face, we are forced to ask ourselves: While we may recoil from the unfairness of the world, is a truly equal society any less daunting?

The difficulty in making sense of the message encoded in Three Colours: White lies in making sense of the concept of equality itself. Indeed, Three Colours: Blue comes across as a far more coherent film because liberty and the pitfalls of freedom are concepts with decades of existential rumination behind them.  Conversely, equality is a value that has become hopelessly degraded through over-use, under-clarification and a regrettable lack of philosophical interest in re-interpretation and re-invigoration. However, while Three Colours: White may be a difficult film because equality is a difficult concept, it is also a difficult film because Kieslowski’s understanding of equality is quixotic to say the least.  The oddness of Kieslowski’s vision is evident from the drastic difference in tone between his treatment of an equality of outcomes and that of equality of opportunity.

Kieslowski’s understanding of equality of outcomes is hampered by the fact that Three Colours: White is a fundamentally unequal film. By having the film’s protagonist pursue revenge against a ruthless and calculating ex-wife who repeatedly emasculates and humiliates him before stealing all of his worldly possessions, Kieslowski presents the quest for equality as a sort of misogynistic revenge fantasy. By making Dominique a symbolic representation of the value of equality, Kieslowski is simply following the rules of engagement laid down in Three Colours: Blue, but while Blue lavished attention on its character’s inner state, White keeps Dominique at arm’s length to the point where she is reduced to the status of an object. By denying us access to both Dominique’s motivations and the couple’s life prior to the divorce, Kieslowski identifies the noble quest for equality with the deluded plotting of a broken misogynist. For Kieslowski, the socialistic desire for an equal society is nothing more than the petty and vindictive desire to get even.

In and of itself, this vision of equality is not problematic but when contrasted with Kieslowski’s image of equality of opportunity, it makes for a strikingly ill tempered and right wing rant.

Three Colours: White’s depicts Poland as a land of opportunity where men of vision can build vast fortunes despite little business experience or acumen. In Paris, Karol was a broken man reduced to paying his comb in the subway, but in Poland he is a titan.  Kieslowski presents Karol’s rise to prominence with a lack of realism that borders on the fantastical. Indeed, why did the gangsters not simply force him to sign over the land? Why did his brother not become a partner seeing as he put up all the cash in the first place? What the fuck does a failed hairdresser know about property deals and the import/export business? By glossing over so many of these details, Kieslowski produces a vision of equality of opportunity that is idealised to the point of being fantastical.

Taken in isolation, these two visions of equality are reductive and lightweight.  Taken together they result in a film whose engagement with the concept of equality feels fundamentally dishonest. Three Colours: White comes across not as the disinterested investigations of a serious thinker but the procrustean rantings of an ideological zealot.

The bitter tone of the film flows chiefly from Karol’s decision to plough his fortune into a plot to get even with Dominique. Up until that point, Karol’s reinvention as a businessman is presented as evidence of his having pulled himself together and moved on after the disastrous marriage to Dominique. Indeed, by sacrificing the money he earned through equality of opportunity into a pursuit of equality of outcomes, Karol ‘taints’ the money and ensures that the bitter vindictiveness of the misogynistic elements of the film come to dominate the entire work suggesting that equality is not just a fantasy but a hugely destructive pipe-dream that is almost indistinguishable from madness.

Many critics have described Three Colours: White as an anti-comedy on the grounds that many of its beats are comedic even if they do not actually raise any laughs.  One suspects that the film’s real joke is supposed to be on those who continue to see value in the quest for equality. However, Kieslowski’s political fantasies are so distasteful that I could not help but sympathise with the plight of Dominique:

Dominique is a woman who married the wrong man.  Working as a model she fell in love with a gifted Polish hairdresser who moved to Paris in order to marry her and set up a business.  Sadly, once the couple were married, Karol’s inability to speak French combined with his misogynistic tendencies meant that the relationship turned sour and loveless.  Mistreated and humiliated, Dominique turned to the courts in order to rid herself of a terrible mistake. Agreeing with her assessment of the facts, the courts gave Dominique the couple’s assets allowing her to rebuild her life when her ex-husband returned to Poland.  Years later, Dominique receives word that her husband is dead and flies to attend the funeral.  Grieving for the man she once loved, Dominique is shocked when Karol appears in her hotel room and seduces her. She is even more shocked when the police arrive to arrest her for murder.  Her life destroyed by her husband’s plotting, Dominique anchors herself to her last sane memory: The night of sexual bliss she enjoyed with the man she once loved.

By reading between the lines and distancing ourselves from Karol’s viewpoint, it is possible to find in Three Colours: White a passionate argument for the protection of government institutions that seek to ensure some equality of outcome. Dominique is a woman who made an honest mistake and married the wrong man… the courts exist in order to protect people from bad luck and to prevent the rich from having their way with the poor.  While Kieslowski may idealise Poland’s equality of opportunity and revile France’s desire for equality of outcomes, I take Karol’s misogynistic vindictiveness and Dominique’s honest desire for a man who will see her as more than an object as proof that the only equality worth pursuing is the equality of outcomes.

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My Piece on Three Colours: Blue

My Piece on Three Colours: Red

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