The Wild, Wild East

White has been billed (if that's not too strong a term for a film that's arriving this quietly) as the sequel to Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue and the middle episode in his trilogy based on the colors of the French flag (part three, Red, apparently caused a stir at Cannes). In what sounds like a singularly bogus idea, Kieslowski has related one word from the French Revolution's slogan, liberte, egalite, fraternite, to each color. If I remember the press kit right, white = equality.

But I already had my fun with Kieslowski's conceptualizing when Blue arrived earlier this summer. The news here is that White is a drastically different film from its austere, high-minded predecessor. We're reminded of Blue only when its star, the usually welcome Juliette Binoche, pokes her head through a Parisian courtroom door and asks for directions.

She's a distraction (albeit a minor one), because the scene she interrupts is so compelling. An utterly pathetic Pole, Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), is being divorced by Dominique (Julie Delpy), his beautiful but cruel French wife. Because Karol can't speak French well enough to defend himself and his marriage, he has to rely on a translator. So when Dominique says she wants a divorce because Karol can't consummate their marriage, the audience gets to hear both the charge and his weak defense -- "I was once able to please my wife" -- refracted through both Polish and French.

Karol then spirals downward. He drinks, sleeps on the streets and further humiliates himself with Dominique. Then he meets a fellow Pole who takes pity on him. His countryman offers Karol a job as a kind of Kevorkian for the emotionally distressed. At first Karol wants no part of the assisted-suicide business, especially since he would be doing the assisting with a revolver. Later, after he has returned to Warsaw under comically humiliating circumstances -- he's shipped as luggage -- Karol finds himself turned on by the post-Soviet, wild wild East atmosphere there, and decides to become a tycoon. Needing seed money, he remembers the job offer.

White has a handful of memorable scenes, but the moment when this Chaplinesque clown of a businessman has a pistol in his hand and attempts to shoot a man at point-blank range is a minor classic. Classic, too, is Karol's darkly comic ruse to bring his wife back into his life, which leaves us unsure whether it's her, or revenge against her, that he's after.

But for all its surprisingly deft comic touches, White is even more welcome for giving us an image and a narrative to match the news from eastern Europe. This is one of the first films I've seen that takes the new European reality as its subject matter.

White becomes confusing at the end. Kieslowski serves up Christian imagery -- resurrection scenes, the Pieta -- apparently at random, and Karol's final treatment of the defeated Dominique feels more double-minded than ambiguous. But the film remains the strongest European import of the past year or so.

-- David Theis


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