One of the highest ideas of a free society is equality. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s second entry in the thematic Three Colors trilogy delves into this concept, turning this virtue on its head. While I would be skeptical to call this film autobiographical (I think Camera Buff is that film for Kieslowski), it’s undeniable that Kieslowski brings some of himself into this film as a Pole making a trilogy of French films.
The story stars a Polish man named Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) who is recently wed to a French woman named Dominique (Julie Delpy). She wants a divorce on the grounds that their marriage was never consummated. Karol protests, but due to his status as an immigrant and his inability to grasp the French language, the courts side with Dominique. Left homeless and with only a small chest of belongings, Karol begins a journey back to his native Poland.
Citizenship becomes a defining attribute of domination and power in Kieslowski’s examination of equality. A culture may claim equality for people, but in practice that may only mean its own citizens who are given rights and privileges. And while one can make an argument for the validity of such a system, Kieslowski is quick to expose that it leads to a world of inequality.
And this inequality isn’t a one way road. When Karol returns to his native Poland, he slowly begins to rebuild his life and ends up finding a way to build a new life, in part out of deception and trickery. Yet Karol separates himself from other businessmen with a sense of fairness. He makes Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos), the Pole that helped him out of France, a joint partner of his venture. Also, on a worksite he finds the contractor has cut corners to reduce costs and he insists they start over and make it honestly.
Yet Karol uses his business to lure Dominique to Poland. He fakes his own death and when Dominique arrives, he finds a way to have her detained by the Polish authorities who are tipped off that she might have done something to Karol in order to get to his business holdings. Karol even goes so far as to consummate their relationship in Poland before he drifts away. Therefore, in some way, Karol gets even with Dominique.
But is this the kind of equality a society should strive to attain? An infringement of inequality should be met with justice, but will people be satisfied by that? Both Dominique and Karol are so malevolently cruel in their quest for justice that it becomes vengeance. Is equality just a way to be vindicated? Is getting even just a euphemism for humiliating each other?
Kieslowski looks long and hard at human’s deceptive nature, how pure and noble virtues are perverted by the people who end up using them in their personal vendettas. Not for a moment does Kieslowski suggest equality is a bad thing, but the paths people take to get it, and the man-made societies of the world are quick to use good intentions to bad ends.
White ends with a beautifully wordless scene. It expresses a deep longing that neither Dominique nor Karol seem able to articulate: there is a desire to be equals. Kieslowski is skeptical that the world can reach such a place, but recognizes that we will strive for it anyway, and that’s the most honest and hopeful conclusion he could reach.