In Poland they have a saying that has become particularly popular in the wake of communism's fall: "Everyone wants to be more equal than everyone else."
White is the second installment in masterful Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's film trilogy based on the trinity of precepts that guided the French Revolution A liberty, equality, fraternity. (The first was Blue. Stay tuned for Red.) White's everyman hairdresser protagonist, Karol, is a Chaplinesque figure who allows the balance of power in his marriage to shift and then pays dearly for it. He and his beautiful French wife, Dominique, speak of every major development in their relationship in terms of winning or losing: He won when he wooed her successfully in Poland; she won when she persuaded him to move to Paris.
In France, Karol is helpless. He loses everything -- his sexual potency, Dominique's affection, his car, his money, his business, his passport, his dignity. A thoroughly beaten man, he sneaks back into his native Poland concealed inside a suitcase and sets about becoming more equal than everyone else.
From Kieslowski's perspective, true equality is impossible. It runs counter to human nature. The failure of communism and the breakup of Karol's marriage flow from the same spring. Ultimately Karol's happiness hinges on his ability to regroup financially. His self-worth and his net worth are inextricably intertwined.
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White is one of those complex, tragicomic works of art that function on multiple levels. It's a love story. It's a Horatio Alger story. It's a revenge story. It's a hazy metaphysical tale of death and rebirth, and a clear-eyed examination of the craziness and absurdity of life in modern-day Poland, where the phrase that pays is "These days, you can buy anything." A gun, a corpse, a family farm, a new identity -- all is for sale if the price is right. After 50 years of socialist rule, capitalism runs amok. Marx's worst nightmare is being realized, and Kieslowski and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz work it for every ounce of poignance and humor. The odds against two viewers leaving the theater with the same take on the film are higher than those against the former Eastern Bloc peacefully and voluntarily returning to communism.
In director Kieslowski's hands, White probably would have made for compelling viewing regardless of who played Karol. But Zbigniew Zamachowski's performance is a thing of beauty. Not blessed with matinee-idol looks, Zamachowski invests the erstwhile hairdresser character with the Little Tramp's sad-eyed gumption and Depardieu's lumpy charisma. He becomes Karol so completely that you share his pain every step of the way.
Back in Poland everything seems possible. "I feel like a kid again!" Karol exclaims while frolicking on an ice-covered river with a wealthy friend who is enjoying a new lease on life thanks to Karol. A stint as a guard for a black-market moneychanger leads to a shady real estate deal, and quicker than you can say Gordon Gecko, Karol is being squired around town in a chauffeur-driven Volvo, cutting deals and sending faxes. He slicks back his hair and cloaks himself in tailored suits, but his astounding material success is merely a means to an end -- winning back Dominique's heart and, in the process, becoming more equal for the final time.
Like its protagonist, White is triumphant.