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Non-Review Review: Three Colours White

This week we’re taking a look at Krzysztof Kieślowski’s celebrated “Three Colours” Trilogy. We’ll be publishing reviews on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, so check back and sound off.

There’s a general critical consensus that Three Colours White represents the weakest instalment in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours Trilogy. I have to admit, it’s not a position that I disagree with. It’s not a bad film by any stretch (it’s quite a good one), but it never reaches quite the same levels of depth and development that the two films bookending the trilogy attain so easily. When I was younger, I could never quite put my finger on why that might be, but – as I got older – I think I might have figured out why this instalment leaves me cold.

It's all down-hill from here...

I don’t mind the rather sudden genre-shift that Kieślowski pulls here, moving away from the serious tragedy of the first film into something approaching black comedy. There are moments when the film is darkly hilarious, such as when Karol Karol’s plan to smuggle himself into Poland in a suitcase backfires horribly, with a bunch of criminals hijacking his luggage and knocking the stuffing out of him. Karol’s character arc in the first half hour of the film is the very definition of “it can’t get worse!” as he finds himself divorced, penniless, framed for a crime, hired as a contract killer, shipped home in a briefcase and beaten brutally.

I also love the idea of a character traveling via suitcase. Peter Bradshaw, the film critic with The Guardian, once observed that the films were “set somewhere which looks like the real world, but isn’t” – and I think the suitcase is perhaps the best illustration of this sort of absurdity. (The strange crossovers and recursive nature of the narrative in Three Colours Red also allude to the fact that this is a very strange little universe the Polish director has constructed.) There are nice moments to be found in the film for sure.

Bridezilla!

In fact, while I’d argue that Kieślowski’s direction isn’t as pitch-perfect here as it is in the other two films, it’s still fantastic. Sure, white doesn’t seem to work as well saturating a frame as blue or red would (with the clouds often seeming almost grey and speckles of black dirty peering out from beneath the snow), but Kieślowski has a fantastic grip on technique. He has a beautiful ability to unity imagery and soundtrack to create a fully-functional “whole”, meaning that the films never fail to look and sound absolutely fantastic.

There’s one shot in particular here, as Karol spies on his ex-wife Dominique, where her apartment window is revealed to be beside a giant billboard for a Jean-Luc Goddard film starring Brigitte Bardot. Even if it wasn’t a nice acknowledgement of the director who gave actress Julie Delpy her big break into film, casting her in Detective, it’s still a lovely shot that perfectly capture’s Karol’s perspective on the woman who he loves.

Suit(case) you, sir...

Still, there are some fundamental problems with the film. The first seems to be the fact that the theme of “equality” seems to lack the resonance that “liberty” and “fraternity” have as part of this trilogy. Kieślowski suggests that true “liberty” requires a great measure of “independence”, in sharp contrast to the healthier “co-dependence” of “fraternity.” The two films contrast particularly well. However, while Kieślowski does find a particularly bitter twist on the revolutionary ideal of “equality”, it never seems to fit that broadly with the other two films.

Don’t get me wrong. They are undeniably part of the same work. The “old person at the bottle bank” motif plays out here, but there doesn’t seem to be too much difference in how Karol reacts to it as compared to Julie. In Three Colours Blue, Julie doesn’t seem to notice the woman at the bottlebank, and so doesn’t help – indifferent, because everybody’s free to deal with their own issues. Here, Karol merely smirks, but also doesn’t help at all – as if realising that everybody has their problems, and so are equal. There’s also a callback to Karol’s cameo in the earlier film as well.

A close shave...

However, something about Kieślowski’s themes here seems a bit simple and relatively straightforward. Perhaps it’s because the director is dealing with his home country, but the metaphor comparing Karol’s shady involvement in “the money business” to Poland’s economic development feels a little heavy-handed. While I do like the suggestion that Karol is poor and miserable, while Mikolaj is rich and miserable – tying beautifully into the central theme of bitter and twisted “equality.” Still, the film seems to lack some of the fascinating and beguiling complexity of the other two instalments, which makes for a weaker viewing experience.

There’s also the two central characters. Zbigniew Zamachowski and Julie Delpy do their best with the material, but neither of the pair ever seems as rich or as complex as Julie from the first film, or Valentine or “the judge” from the third. It isn’t that both characters are unlikable (after all, the next film asks us to sympathise with a peeping tom) but that they simply aren’t compelling enough in their own right. In particular, Dominique seems completely psychotic, burning down her salon to frame her ex-husband for arson, aftertrying to sleep with him. She might not smoke after sex, but her salon will.

The sad, sad song of Karol Karol...

While Three Colours Red retains sympathy for character who do various sorts of immoral and illicit activities, Three Colours White never develops Dominique past the point where we see her as a border-line sociopath. Granted, we do spend more time with Karol, but even he never seems truly interesting in his own right. We can’t seem to comprehend his central motivation: why is he so fixated on Dominique? We wonder how he missed these tendencies in her, and we never really see what keeps him romantically interested in her for as long as he is. And the reversal of his feelings seems just as random. Reportedly, Kieślowski changed the ending of the film to make Dominique seem like less of a monster, but it’s still hard to muster any real engagement with either of the two leads.

Still, the movie is well made, and Kieślowski is a director with a pretty impressive skill. That said, this is easily the weakest of the three films in the trilogy. Fortunately, we do end on a high note.

Read our reviews of the complete Three Colours trilogy:

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