Afterimages of Comedy

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino
Things appear white until you focus on them: sunlight, cigarette smoke, wedding dresses. After that they are modified by shadows, or they evolve into different colors, blondes and greys. “White is actually the most difficult color to film,” Krzysztof Kieślowski said in a documentary about White, the second film in his Three Colors trilogy. “I don’t think you can really film it. It’s not a photogenic color. It’s not really a color. It’s simply the lack of color.” Its presence in White is less talismanic than the blues in Blue, less spectral and omniscient than red in Red. White isn’t invested into objects; it lands in the frame in arbitrary masses. It figures into the film primarily through the lunar snow in Warsaw, the white of which is produced through reflected sunlight. It’s also generously freckled by dirt. There’s no symbolic design to this; in White, things just happen.

For instance, Karol Karol, the main character of White, played by Zbigniew Zamachowski, just happens to be impotent. He can’t explain it. It is sort of ambiently suggested as a physical byproduct of the anxiety he feels at work, the unease he feels around his wife, and the alienation he feels as a Polish man living in Paris. His clothes are too big for him and drape ambiguously from his frame, and his body inhabits the world heavily; one of the first shots of the film is of his feet, which walk toward a courthouse in frustrated, shattered rhythms.

This isn’t to suggest Karol is inanimate or depressing. He’s played by Zamachowski with a kind of elastic gravity. “I was to remember the language and atmosphere of [Charlie Chaplin] films,” Zamachowski said in an interview for the Criterion DVD. His face is capable of conveying both immersive wonder and embarrassment, sometimes at once. In the opening scene, Karol dashes toward a constellation of pigeons on the courthouse steps, and observes the pattern of their flight with a kind of artless, childlike glee. One of the pigeons poops on him, and as he furiously wipes his jacket with his handkerchief, the look on his face compresses the disenchantment of the moment and a longer history of suffering into one mercurial expression. This kind of intricate collapse of moods is a shared feature of the principal actors in Kieślowski’s trilogy. “He was obsessed with details,” Julie Delpy, who plays Dominique in White, says. “He said what defines people is their physical language, not what [they’re] thinking of. Because sometimes a real person doesn’t know who they are.”

The triangulation of Karol’s moods builds his personality throughout the film, and their effect tends to be…funny. Humor is often organic and lacks a physical purpose; it’s something that just happens. According to Kieślowski, White, of all the movies in the trilogy, is the most deliberately humorous. “It’s supposed to be a comedy, but I don’t think it’s going to be all that funny,” he said in Kieślowski on Kieślowski. “I’ve cut out most of what was supposed to be funny…” It shows. White feels like the afterimage of a comedy, a funny movie whose characters seem to fall through its sheer absence of jokes, into ambiguous and oblique gaps. Sequences that could be played for laughs are cropped into something more awkward and indefinite. After his wife, Dominique, divorces him and he resolves to return to Poland, Karol steals a bust of a woman from a display window. The shape of its face resembles Dominique’s. Later, in Warsaw, Karol kisses the bust. It trembles in response.

White engages with the theme of “equality,” but like Blue’s inverse relationship with “freedom,” it mainly depicts its opposite. Karol and Dominique’s relationship is one of inequality; there’s an untranslatable distance between them, which is both rhetorical and physical. “If I say I love you, you don’t understand,” she tells him. “And if I say I hate you, you don’t understand. You don’t even understand that I want you, that I need you. You understand?” When Dominique leaves Karol she also seizes his funds, which renders him homeless for a few days in Paris. While busking in the subway he meets Mikołaj, played by Janusz Gajos, who offers Karol a job in which he’d have to kill someone who wants to die. He speaks in a narcotic, seductive blur. Karol is uncertain, so they conspire to ship Karol to Warsaw in his own suitcase.

If this feels digressive and sort of disorganized, it’s because digression and disorganization are the guiding rhythms of White. “White tells the story of a constantly moving little man,” says cinematographer Edward Kłosiński. “Who is therefore difficult to photograph. And who we therefore have to follow.” Unlike Sławomir Idziak’s generous filtering on Blue, Kłosiński’s touch is light and utilitarian, which conveys a less romantic and more neutral and kinetic perspective. He frames the characters and lets their expressions determine the space and flow of the scene. His camera movements are adrift yet precise, and contract into expressive closeups, as if the camera itself is in dialogue with the characters. Foreground and background are equally significant and in conversation with each other. Karol rapidly acquires land in post-communist Poland; he plots his next movements on a map in his room, and he’s arranged in parallel to the Dominique-esque bust.

White is a movie about land, about environments: France, Poland, the train stations in each—the prescribed fluorescence in the Paris metro versus the indifferent darkness of the subway in Warsaw. The weightless flood of white sunlight in Poland. Moreso than BlueWhite is attached to its locations; it’s a terrestrial film, less inhabiting the reversed gravity of someone’s grief than the feelings and actions of people engaging with their environments.

It is difficult to characterize White except in direct comparison to Blue or Red, a quality that can haunt the genre of middle chapters; a center is supported by its bookends. White can be a curious and inert film. There are two potential deaths in the movie; one is rehearsed and the other is staged, whereas death is the neurotic engine of Blue. Unlike Blue the story isn’t fractured into vignettes—there’s a continuity in White that was inaccessible to Juliette Binoche’s character in Blue. Yet the story feels looser than Red’s, more flexible.

As in Blue, the flow of time in White can resemble melody more than chronology. Here it’s in the opening, a large suitcase gently drifting on a conveyor belt through the guts of an airport, the significance of which only becomes apparent 20 minutes into the film, and foreshadows a kind of chrysalis for Karol, as he transfers from France to Poland, from poor to rich. (Kieślowski: “All three films start the same way: in the underpinnings of a city and its technology…the point was to show that we use all sorts of things every day without realizing how complicated or potentially dangerous they are.”) There are also two disconnected scenes of Julie Delpy melting into the shadows of a hotel room. When the movie finally arrives at the scene in narrative sequence, it’s to introduce other lacunae—Karol, post-fake-death, materializes in Dominique’s hotel bed.

White is incidentally the most political of Kieślowski’s three deliberately apolitical films descended from revolutionary ideas. Where Blue describes the harmonic qualities of unification through the symphony that Binoche’s character completes, White portrays the living asymmetries of a unified Europe. The Poland Karol retreats to has slipped rather abruptly into the rhythms of hypercapitalism. It affords Karol opportunities both opulent (a Volvo) and grim (a corpse through which Karol engineers his fake death). “We know from history that many leaders have invoked [freedom, equality, and fraternity],” Kieślowski’s co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz said. “What followed was great misfortune, not to mention graves and bodies.”

White, however, doesn’t resemble Kieślowski’s early polemics, which indicted communist Poland. Its focus attaches less to the systems of exploitation than to the people living within them. The plot is one of interpersonal revenge. Karol acquires wealth and fakes his death in order to extract sympathy from Dominique. It doesn’t make him Dominique’s equal; it makes him “more equal” than her. That these social irregularities play out in a film called White, a neutral non-color that is also a vivid range of all light frequencies, is ironic, is funny, is cognitively dissonant, and also just sort of happens.

White only achieves symbolic resonance toward the end of the film. It appears as a white out, as absence, the complete subtraction and expansion of consciousness experienced during orgasm, which Karol finally occasions in Dominique in her hotel room. Two people approach the total annihilation of identity, one of whom is already systematically dead. It’s the closest they get to being equals.