Conventional wisdom holds that Three Colors: White is the least among the Three Colors trilogy, and I guess that I agree with that assessment. I suppose that it's possible to have a least-favorite panel of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, too, and about as useful to the field of arts criticism.

The particular reasons that White is the obvious outlier - irrespective of any considerations of quality - are obvious. It is, for starters, the most overtly "Polish" movie of the three films conceived by director Krzysztof Kieślowski and lawyer Krzysztof Piesiewicz: Three Colors: Blue is very cozily nestled into the tradition of slow-moving Western European art film that it helped to kick of in the '90s, with its oblique narrative, pointed absence of dialogue, and obfuscatory cutting, while Three Colors: Red has a more geographically free sense of character and mysticism that nevertheless feels just about right when presented in French. White, though is gritty and rough and "realistic", certainly more realistic than anything Kieślowski made after Dekalog, his ten-part epic about the death throes of Communist Poland. The lush, richly Expressionist images of those films are replaced here with cinematographer Edward Kłosiński's dementedly bleached-out landscapes and grainy docu-style interiors. It even sounds more Polish: where Zbigniew Preisner's Blue score roars with Germanic-laced choruses and dramatic percussion, and his main theme for Red is a sinuous, Romantic-flavored bolero, White is dominated by a string-driven tango with an ironic cynicism behind it that feels indefinitely but unmistakably Eastern European.

Setting that aside, but only just for a moment, White is also the only member of Three Colors to take a male protagonist, Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), and uniquely for a Kieślowski picture, its headlining woman is something of an ill-defined blank slate: Karol's French ex-wife Dominique (Julie Delpy), who surely appears in less than a third of the 90-minute movie, overall, and has no discernible inner life, a shocking omission for a director whose women are generally among the most complex and interesting in '80s and '90s cinema, stretching easily as far back as 1985's No End. This is, I think, a big part of the reason that White is not as universally-beloved as the films flanking it, and certainly, the excessively male-gazey way that Dominique is used in the narrative structure galls; though it is also mostly if not completely justified by the scenario, which does, after all, adopt Karol's perspective as much as Blue adopts Julie's. And to Karol, Dominique is not merely an Other, she is The Other, the symbol of all the things he longs for and completely fails to comprehend or understand.

Which brings me to the other thing that separates White from the other colors, which is that it's the most openly political film in the trilogy. And maybe I should put "political" in scare quotes, for even here, the film isn't as deeply and exactingly engaged with the nature of politics as any of Kieślowski's great Polish films (this is, by far, the most common criticism of the director's French period, by those who prefer his earlier films to his last four), which were made in Soviet-occupied Poland and without ever being preachy, moralist tales were inherently and obsessively about Soviet occupation. White, of course, was made and release after the fall of the Soviet Union, and in a certain fashion, it's apolitical politics are a direct response to that event; I feel that Kieślowski and Piesiewicz were arguing that post-Communist Poland is itself deliberately un-political, in the way that you have to work awfully hard to achieve, and in this, their most cynical film, the filmmakers are pulling this willful political agnosticism into the fiber of their story.

Not that you can divorce politics from the thing completely. For very much like Blue (not as much like Red), the central narrative is at once a deep and resonant character study and a metaphor for post-Cold War Europe at one and the same time, and you cannot take one away without ruining the other. Karol, we are given to understand, has lived in France since before Poland's liberation, and it was here that he fell in love with Dominique and married her; as the story begins, she has tired of their sexless (indeed, unconsummated!) marriage, and wants to divorce him. The francophonic courts are not at all kind to the Polish-speaking Karol, who finds himself dispossessed of his belongings and his citizenship, reduced to begging in the Métro. Here he meets successful Polish businessman Mikołaj (Janusz Gajos), who offers to smuggle him back to Poland on one condition: Karol must kill a man who wishes to commit suicide, but cannot do so for fear that it will overly traumatise his wife and children.

Karol sneaks his way back in, hidden in a large suitcase; this is stolen at the airport, and the ex-patriate's return home consists of being rolled onto the frozen ground, into a garbage dump. "Frozen garbage dump" is a visual shorthand that persists for basically the rest of the film; Kieślowski and Kłosiński are not afraid to depict their native country in two and only two flavors, one being "dead of winter", the other "waning decrepitude of late autumn". The color white, naturally enough, dominates White, and that mostly comes in the form of washed-out landscapes, washed-out people, and washed-out life. It is a bleak movie if ever one was made.

Naturally enough, this is the comedy of the trio, though a comedy which the writers carefully and deliberately stripped of any humor. White goes on from Karol's homecoming to tell of his rise in the shadowy neo-capitalism that has replaced communism in Poland when democracy wasn't looking, and his ultimate desire to use his fortune solely to get back at Dominique, through fairly arcane and frankly cruel means. And here's where the politics come back in, because you'd have to be particularly unimaginative to miss how "Karol" and "Dominique" could be readily replaced by "Poland" and "Western Europe", and just like that, White becomes a fable about the re-absorption of the former Soviet Bloc states into the European community that was so pridefully birthing itself in the background of Blue. Kieślowski and Piesiewicz are far too intelligent and far too reluctant to make a simple political satire to permit this as the only reading of the film, of course, even the dominant one. But the bitterness that courses through the entire film - a Pole demanding respect from France, and, failing to get it, using underhanded means to get back at the French person that most humiliated him - demands that we connect it to larger social currents than just this one story of one man's revenge.

In the revolutionary credo motif that nominally provides Three Colors with its structure, White is "equality", but a particularly ironic form of equality it is; it's exactly the same kind embodied in the famous Animal Farm line that "all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others", a reality of life under Soviet rule that the creators of the film were assuredly familiar with. Equality, for Karol, is not about receiving the same respect and rights as anyone else - though it starts off that way, in the opening courtroom sequence - but about being equal enough to crush the other fella. The implication being that this, in a newly-freed Poland, is what is being idealised: not humanitarianism, but selfishness, not true equality, but being the most equal among all your friends. As with Blue, the plot of the film largely hinges on the protagonist being restored to his basic, decent humanity after giving taking a noble idea ("liberty", "equality") and corrupting it; though in White, the restorative scene was only added after the fact, as Kieślowski was concerned (rightly) that the film ended on too sour a note, and left Dominique too empty a figure.

But here I am, going on and on, doing exactly thing I want not to do: reducing White to a singular scheme. If it's not quite as obscure as the other two films, it's undeniably complex and layered, and far from telling just a simple story of one man with a big heart turning to great before returning to humanism, it's a beautifully abstract study of identity in a quickly-changing world. It has its share of symbolism, mostly in a lengthy chain of doublings: Karol Karol's very name, which is echoed throughout the movie in a pair of corpses, a pair of pseudo-resurrections, a pair of brothers (Karol's brother Jurek is played by Jerzy Stuhr, who also played his brother in Dekalog 10), two meager francs that are Karol's whole fortune in the world. It is a film of pairs, her and me, the past and the present, Western and Eastern Europe, and the challenge to the characters lies in finding a unified self in the face of all this doubling.

In the end, of White is the most apparently straightforward of the Three Colors, visually, thematically, and narratively, it's still profound and challenging in its own right, and literally the only reason I can think of to call it straightforward or simple at all is in connection with the other two films in its series. And even that is a superficial take on a movie that, from head to toe, is as probing and meaningful as any arthouse hit of the '90s, lacking only the drama and mystical qualities of Blue and Red to overtly flag itself as such.