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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘White’ a Cautionary Tale of Love

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

As in the monumental “The Decalogue,” in which Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski probed the relevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life, Kieslowski has been considering the contemporary meaning of the French Revolution slogan “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” in his provocative ongoing “Three Colors” trilogy, which began with “Blue.”

His second installment, “White,” a darkly whimsical cautionary take on the dangerous distortions of the notion of equality, begins in Paris but is set primarily in Warsaw, which allows Kieslowski to revel in warm, wry Eastern European absurdist humor while considering the moral chaos of his post-communist country.

The film opens with a wistful, unprepossessing-looking young man named Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) apprehensively approaching one of Paris’ grand and imposing government buildings. Trying for an optimistic attitude, the poor guy is dumped on by a pigeon, a harbinger of far worse to come.

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In a dizzyingly swift sequence, his beautiful but awesomely cruel French wife Dominique (Julie Delpy) of six months divorces him, closes their joint account and even devises a way of making him wanted by the police. Although they had been lovers prior to tying the knot, Karol has been unable to consummate the marriage. (Delpy can be glimpsed in “Blue,” “Blue’s” Juliette Binoche in “White.”)

Karol is reduced to playing his comb as a harmonica, hoping that passersby in a Metro station will toss him coins. He encounters Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos), a fellow countryman, who offers to get him back to his native Warsaw--with strings attached. This journey, too inspired and funny to reveal here, further brutalizes and humiliates Karol to the extent that he is ripe for exploiting ruthlessly the new anything-goes Polish society and economy.

Not content to resume working at the beauty salon his sweetly solicitous brother (Jerzy Stuhr) has been running single-handedly in his absence, he soon becomes a tycoon. But when he at last risks a call to Dominique, her response inspires in him a course of action at once drastic and stunningly ironic.

The tribulations of Karol allow Kieslowski not only to comment on the current state of Poland but also on the exceedingly perverse twists and turns that love can take, especially when couples get carried away in playing games with consequences that spin out of their control. There’s lots of plot in “White,” but it is the work of a master of the visual; here Kieslowski has a strong assist from the precise yet buoyant camerawork of Edward Klosinski, who shot his monumental “Decalogue.”

Kieslowski is generous in his praise of his longtime colleagues who serve him so well, co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz and composer Zbigniew Preisner, who this time has come up with a mournful yet jaunty tango to accompany Karol on his destiny. There’s lightness in the performances of the film’s principals despite the convolutions of their roles, and a lightness in this most rueful of comedies.

MPAA rating: R, for some sexuality and language. Times guidelines: It includes highly adult themes, situations.

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‘White’

Zbigniew Zamachowski: Karol Karol

Julie Delpy: Dominique

Janusz Gajos: Mikolaj

Jerzy Stuhr: Jurek

A Miramax-Marin Karmitz presentation. Director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Producer Marin Karmitz. Screenplay by Kieslowski, Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Cinematographer Edward Klosinski. Editor Ursula Lesiak. Music Zbigniew Preisner. Set designers Halina Dobrawolska, Claude Lenoir. Interior set designer Magdalena Dipont. In Polish and French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

In limited release in Southern California.

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