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Thursday
Oct222009

White

Until a recent reviewing of this film, the middle part of a legendary Polish–French trilogy, I had an odd conception of what actually took place.  Both the beginning and the end were, I discovered, perfectly etched in my memory.  But of the middle part, when our down-and-out protagonist Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) escapes back to his native Poland and his fortune takes a sharp turn, I had but scraps.  I would like to think that this is owing to my internal ethical mechanism that purges me of the most superficial and materialist information to which I am exposed, leaving only the sweet and bittersweet traces of love, warmth, art, curiosity and nostalgia.  However much I wish to delude myself, my own disposition may indeed have had something to do with it.  But the main reason is because the film is really nothing at all without its climax, so perfectly woven and yet so cruel, and the whole tale resonates, stinks, and flashes with the slow destructiveness of revenge.

White is not about love, despite the fervid claims of Karol, who is impotent and married to the lovely Dominique (a nymphet-like Julie Delpy).  The film begins in front of a courthouse and ends with a strange exchange outside a prison, and both main characters have something to hide from their partner.  Karol is a hairdresser who has come to France to make his mark, leaving behind a rather popular practice outside of Warsaw.  We understand the changes that were occurring in Central Europe at the time (early 1990s), and sympathize with those who believed that the formerly socialist states might not survive the overhaul.  Karol, one of these sceptics, finds a way to Paris and then finds a French wife in Dominique.  One wonders what exactly Dominique might want with this small and scruffy Pole.  Looks notwithstanding, his French is limited to two- or three-word phrases that inevitably spurt out of his mouth once the other person has resumed talking, and we can suppose that advanced Polish was not an elective in her Paris lycée.  He is neither rich nor, as we are painfully informed, gifted in pleasuring his partners.  Love is blind, true enough.  But dumb, patient, and sexless?  The match is more than unlikely, it is nonsensical. 

You may retort that we are watching a fairy tale, and I concur.  Yet the result, while appropriate and correct, has little of the magical justice that a fairy tale espouses.  It then behooves us to determine why on earth this couple ever became a couple.  Dominique obviously has no interest in children, nor in learning Polish, but she does like both money and sex.  Karol was an award–winning hairdresser in the old country, and it is no stretch of our little grey cells to imagine that he could have saved up “quite a nest egg” (a line used in the film in a later context) in order to travel to France and set up shop under the Paris sky.  Just as easily, he could have made Dominique – who shows no signs of employment – a very generous offer in return for French citizenship.  This premise explains not only Dominique’s interest, but also why the dream wedding sequence that pervades Karol’s consciousness is just that, a dream.  They never had a white wedding, or anything more than a perfunctory mishmash of vows before a justice of the peace.  Once Dominique has Karol’s money, there is nothing left to do except throw him to the dogs.

Amidst these street urchins, Karol is found by Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos), who suggests that he return to Poland and work for him there.  Well, that’s not quite how the matter is phrased.  They take a walk by Dominique’s apartment, and he catches sight of his wife in the window with, Mikolaj informs him, no real intention of going to sleep.  A phone call confirms Mikolaj’s supposition, and Karol’s trust is won.  Then Mikolaj asks Karol for a favor in repayment, a favor so painfully clear to the viewer that we understand the significance of white’s symbolism.  Now, color coordination with symbolic meaning is a lowly pursuit best reserved for interior decorators with no imagination.  Yet the white in this sequence harks back to the whiteness of the wedding that never took place, the naïveté and innocence that Dominique is supposed to embody, but which more accurately characterize her husband.  White then becomes the symbol of purity in post-Communist Poland, of the ubiquitous snowfall that makes everything shine and glisten as if there were nothing filthy or reprehensible underneath.  Karol does proceed, in rather spectacular fashion, back home and begins to take advantage of the new economic freedoms granted to him and his countrymen.  Soon the old Karol, the stuttering doormat and cuckold, is replaced by an oily tycoon with infrastructure and influence.  The transformation is as preposterous as Karol and Dominique’s marriage, so we should not be surprised at the end when both absurdities merge into a coherent allegory.  And Karol’s sentimentality in the final scene, at once utterly sincere and utterly fraudulent, is not to be missed.    

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