Film review: Three Colors White (1994)

My review is intended for people who have already watched the film. Contains spoilers.

In Kieslowski’s own words, a lyrical or sad comedy. The director thinks you laugh, because we are not in those situations ourselves. I think this is my favourite part of the three colours trilogy, and for me has some interesting and ambiguous characters, who stayed with me and remain a puzzle.

An interviewer asked Kieslowski, how did you conceive the films in relation to each other?
Kieslowski: We looked very closely at the three ideas, how they functioned in everyday life, but from an individual's point of view. These ideas are contradictory with human nature. When you deal with them practically, you do not know how to live with them. Do people really want liberty, equality, fraternity? Is it not some manner of speaking? We always take the individual, personal point of view.

Interviewer: The theme of equality is not, at first glance, very obvious in White.
Kieslowski: It can be found in different areas: between husband and wife, at the level of ambitions and in the realm of finance. White is more about inequality than equality. (...) For White, I named the hero Karol (Charlie in Polish) as a tribute to Chaplin. This little man, who is both naive and shrewd, has a ‘chaplinesque’ side to him.

The main theme is equality. Can we ever be equal in a relationship? Love is not democratic, but it seems to be a series of compromises. It would be great if we gave our loved one the same amount of affection, but the world doesn’t work like that. Often one party cares more than the other, and we don't always know if we've given enough love. Human behaviour is not math, it's not a 50/50 deal. And how to deal with this situation? We don't always remember to give the love a loved one needs, and communication is obviously key regarding expectations, but in the case of Karol and Dominique it's very difficult. Sometimes the people who crave affection the most are the ones who are the worst at giving it.

According to an interview with the director, the bird shit scene at the beginning is a summary of the whole film. He feels maltreated by fate, Karol has observed the bird with a sense of joy, and therefore feels humiliated. For Kieslowski, part of the films theme is humiliation. People are not and will not be equal. The hero is not equal with others. His naïve vision of nature betrays him. The dove represents nature.

Actress Julie Delpy talks about Kieslowski on the dvd extras, and believes the soul of his films is in all the little details, and that has something to do with his way of portraying characters. Each character is unique, and distinguishable from the others. And this is why his characters are so human. Kieslowski told her, that he was not inspired so much by other directors, but by documentaries and real life, which is why his work doesn’t look like other films.

The scenes between Karol and his new friend Mikolaj are powerful, they talk about how life and particularly women have disappointed them, and in one scene they experience a fleeting moment of joy by running and sliding like children across the ice. The theme of whiteness can be seen in the snow, they are equal for a moment, white might also symbolize a return to innocence.

Kieslowski discusses in the making of how his city Warszawa is a place of impatient and aggressive ambition to become rich at any cost in order to gain material wealth. The greed is very obvious he thinks.

The beginning of the film centres around Karol’s wife Dominique, who in a cold-hearted and humiliating gesture goes to court and wants to divorce Karol, and says she doesn’t love him on the grounds he no longer satisfies her sexually. The gullible Karol wants to save the marriage, but maybe such a cold woman is not worth his time. Perhaps he shouldn’t feel so sorry for himself, as she is so shallow that she only seems to respond to sexual favours. Wouldn’t matter if she slept with him or a hundred other men, it seems she doesn’t care about who he is on the inside, he is better off looking elsewhere, and she clearly appears to enjoy leading him down the garden path and hurting his feelings. Difficult to know, but she might not know how to love someone besides having sexual intercourse with them?

Perhaps the tables could be turned onto Karol, he still loves her due to her beauty, so he is not much better than her. As I see it, Karol has very little dignity and is shameless, he continues to have feelings for her even after being humiliated, and has an inability to get over her, despite Dominique treating him like rubbish, I guess we can’t help who we love at the end of the day. Does he spend the whole film trying to make a fortune so as to win Dominique back again? I think the tragic irony is he gets his revenge on Dominique, but ends up a loveless man anyway, as he still has feelings for her, which the crying at the end indicates. That’s my own interpretation, I’m sure there are lots of other ways to interpret the story.

Julie Delpy has her own interpretation in the dvd extras about the ending. That the sign language is her saying, when I get out of jail, then you and I will travel away together. Or else we will stay here and get married, which the finger gesture indicates. She is saying she loves him, that they are equal like the theme of the story suggests. They are both locked up, he is officially dead, and she is in prison. But there is hope, even though their current situation is sad.

The sign language scene at the end without subtitles makes the film open-ended.

Blue (1993) indicated that freedom is an illusion, White (1994) contemplates that equality is also delusion, we can’t control what other people feel towards us and others, or even our own feelings at times. So the beauty of relying on others can be painful, if the other party does not honour it. We can hope equality happens in a relationship, but not expect it. Perhaps we shouldn’t put so much emphasize on what others can do for us, as it will undoubtedly lead to disappointment, instead concentrate on what you can do to make life more pleasant for those around you.

Also important to learn to be happy, even when there is no one else around, I sense in the film Karol is not comfortable alone. As they said in a Twin Peaks episode:
“There’s things you can’t get in books. There are things you can’t get anywhere, but we dream they can be found in other people”

Yet the most important moments and experiences in life are usually in the company of other people, so we have to have the courage to put our trust on the line. But we also must have the insight to know if the other person cares or not, which is not easy to know in the case of Karol’s wife Dominique. We can never truly know if someone is in love with us, you have to trust their words.

From interview book Kieslowski on Kieslowski: "He does everything he can to prove to himself and the woman who has dumped him that he is better than she thinks he is. And he does it. That’s why he becomes more equal. Except that while he is becoming more equal he falls into the trap he has set for his wife; because it turns out that he loves her – which he didn’t know. He thought he didn’t love her anymore. He just wanted his revenge. But during the revenge what happens is that love has returned. Both for him and her.” (translated)

The back stories of several of the characters are not revealed, which leaves much to interpret once the film is over.

Readers, any thoughts on White?




  1. Though often rated below Blue & Red by most film critics, White interestingly happens to be my favourite of the lot (i.e. where Three Colors goes). Love the way pitch-black humour and irony was superbly juxtaposed with the pristine white cinematography - a fact that the Coen brothers too adapted excellently in their Fargo.

  2. @Shubhajit : Yeah, the special humour makes White quite different to the other parts. Blanc is also my favourie at least in terms of character study, I think the visuals and cinematography are stronger in Blue and Red, although White is by no means bad in that department. As a lover of film it's difficult not to like the trilogy, they work both on an emotional and symbolic/visual level. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your love of these great pieces of art ( :

  3. Intriguing that you like this one the most. I love this film, it's my least favorite of the three, but I still love it for the reasons you brought up.

    I also think it's the sweetest and most humorous of the trilogy, in large part because of the Karol character. He might be my favorite of the three leads. He certainly has the most complex and ambiguous development throughout his episode.

  4. @cinemasights : There is something likeable about the Karol character. We have all had trouble at some point in our lives with the opposite sex, and can identify to a certain degree. The relationship is so much more interesting and ruthless in White than standard Hollywood movies.


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