[Author’s note: Hello readers. It’s been a while… October to be precise. If you don’t know me in real life, I’ve just been through a bit of a major life change. I left my job in New York City as the Managing Editor of a music site to return home to West Virginia to take care of some college related stuff. It’s either the most responsible decision of my life or the worst decision I’ve ever made. Honestly, it’s 50/50 either way. That said, culture writing is how I make my living. It’s how I pay my bills and although I won’t be writing about music every day for the foreseeable future, I don’t want my writing to get rusty so don’t be surprised to see me updating this site again with more regularity. You might have also noticed that I changed the name of the site to Lost Again. That feels more appropriate at 27 than Hot Saas’s Pop Culture Safari which is something I thought was cute at 21 when I made this site but feels a bit out of place now. Welcome back.]
In the first scene of Krzyszstof Kieslowski’s White, a bird defecates on the shoulder of beleaguered hairdresser, Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski). The Polish Karol is standing outside the courthouse where his French wife, Dominique (Julie Delpy), is suing him for divorce. A bird shitting on his coat is the least of Karol’s worries.
Karol is impotent. He’s impotent in the sense that he can not consummate his marriage despite an (unhealthy) adoration of his wife. But he’s impotent in a deeper sense as well. Karol is a foreigner adrift in a nation where he does not speak the tongue. He has no money of his own. Within days of his wife leaving him, he is homeless, living in the Parisian subways with no prospects for his career and no drive to rebuild his life. When life gets tough, Karol doesn’t find resilience. He finds self-pity and confusion.
Krzyszstof Kieslowski is one of cinema’s great moralists. White is the second film in his ‘Three Colors’ triptych, and where Blue and Red are operatic essays on the ethics of grief and the lines we cross in our desire for intimacy, White is a tragicomic screwball comedy on masculine inaction. And for an hour or so, Kieslowski puts his barber through one expertly timed misery after another: Dominique setting her salon on fire after he fails to perform sexually one last time, having his credit card confiscated, having the telephone eat his final two francs, and the famous sequence where he flies himself inside a suitcase to Poland only for thieves to steal the luggage and beat him up once they discover he’s stowing away. But somewhere around White‘s final act, Kieslowski trades in his piercing moral clarity for cruelty lacking his usual self-awareness.
Movies can have protagonists who are awful people while still presenting a clear moral parable. Martin Scorsese has made an entire career off of this sort of film, and 2014’s Nightcrawler is a more recent example of using toxic characters to make points about moral sickness in contemporary culture. And even in Kieslowski’s final ‘Three Colors’ film, Red, he paints Jean-Louis Trintignant’s passive voyeurism as a last ditch act of desperation in a world where he can find no other human comforts. White is a tale of two spurned lovers — one by a man who professes to love her but can’t love her body and the other by a woman who watches the world burn around her in revenge for sexual rejection — and while White‘s laughs feel harmless enough in the film’s beginning, by the end, it revels in the destruction and pain that its male hero inflicts to an uncomfortable degree.
It’s impossible to discuss the ways in which White falls apart without diving into the meat of its finale so if you haven’t seen the film yet and don’t wish to be spoiled, stop reading now.
After reaching the absolute nadir of human existence by being pummeled to a pulp and abandoned outside a Polish landfill, Karol finally decides to reclaim control of his life. He takes a security job for a low-rent Polish gangster. He starts hoarding money til he can cheat the gangster out of a lucrative real estate deal. He opens a business with money saved from racketeering and agreeing to murder a man who can’t commit suicide (who doesn’t go through with it after Karol shoots him with a blank in a scene that is key to throwing a wrinkle in White‘s condemnations of inaction/indecision). He becomes so wealthy that he has money to throw away by bulldozing an ancient stone wall so he can rebuild a new one that is two centimeters larger. Karol is no longer waiting for the universe to make things right for him. He may have begged Dominique and the judge at his divorce hearing for more time, but now he is one of Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe.
But Karol’s ambitions aren’t noble self-improvement. They’re a cancerous obsession with his ex-wife. Karol has acquired all of this wealth just so he can fake his own death and frame Dominique for his murder… which he does after revealing to her that he’s still alive and they finally make love. Karol gets his wife to admit that she still loves him, and he leaves her to rot in a Polish prison.
On the one hand, White has the structure of a Preston Sturges farce played out through the archetypes of Shakespearean tragedy. Feminine sexual frustration played against masculine shortcomings is fertile ground for exploring gender warfare, and Kieslowski’s work in The Double Life of Veronique and his other ‘Three Colors’ films shows an auteur in full display of morality without shameless moralizing. And even as I type these words, it strikes me that Kieslowski was likely all too aware of the cancerous masculinity of Karol Karol and his corrupted, capitalistic aspirationalism. But White‘s final scene still hits a note that doesn’t equate with his usual knack for the cinematic parable.
As Dominique sits in her cell, Karol comes to peer at her through the prison courtyard. She sees him and mimes that if she ever gets out of prison, she wishes to be his wife again. She still loves him. He cries. Fade to black.
It was clear from the beginning of the film that Dominique wanted Karol to truly know that he loved her… to be able to prove his love for her. And he delivers that proof with his elaborate ruse that lands her in prison? Is Kieslowski saying that her desire for affirmation through Karol is as sick as his need for her love (and his eventual need for his revenge)? If so, that’s an interesting avenue for thought that would be too generous to even call half-baked through any presentation in the text of White. And while I highly doubt that Kieslowski was actively endorsing Karol’s behavior, the film’s ironic subversion of a traditional romantic comedy’s happy reunion seems to find too much joy in whatever Karol is doing.
The more that I write about this film the more that I complicate my own feelings about my dissatisfaction with White‘s ending. My use of the phrase “ironic subversion” seems to be a recognition that I think that Kieslowski knew what he was doing. And so maybe my issue with the film is the dissatisfaction of feeling tricked into empathizing with a man who turns out to be sociopathic (and chases a love that isn’t much better). And even with the dissatisfaction, I suppose there’s a refreshing element to a film where my sum reaction to it is “I don’t know.”