FILM / 'White': a paler shade of 'Blue': Three Colours: White (15); Serial Mom (18); The Crow (18); Fausto (15); The Air Up There (15)

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The Independent Culture
THE OPENING of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours: White (15) finds our hero, Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), pacing anxiously up and down, like a bridegroom outside a church. He's actually outside a law court - a husband awaiting a divorce, which his wife (Julie Delpy) is forcing on him because of his impotence. Kieslowski cuts between this scene of anticipation and devastation, and shots of a large brown trunk nosing its way around an airport luggage-carousel. We later discover that the trunk contains Karol, smuggling himself out of Paris back to his native Poland. In these strange first moments Kieslowski sets the film's tone - a kind of wan despair, not entirely alleviated by some inscrutably deadpan humour, and a large freight of cultural baggage that needs opening up.

White is the second part of Kieslowski's tricolour trilogy (three films on the themes of the French flag). After Blue's essay on freedom, White is about equality, though the big themes are merely starting-points for Kieslowski and co-screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz. In as much as White is about equality, it's a negative, rather cynical observation, on the lines that equality is an illusory human objective: each person wants to be more equal than the next. Karol, having returned to Poland, seems stung into success by his wife's rejection of him. He becomes a tycoon and sets about winning her back through various scams and subterfuges.

That human motivation is often selfish rather than altruistic seems a true but meagre proposition. The film's pleasures are less in intellectual insights than character studies. As Karol, Zamachowski gives an absorbing, downbeat performance, growing from down-and-out busker on the Paris Metro to Warsaw magnate. When he succeeds at business, the same open, worried face that seemed a sign of his loser status becomes the furrowed preoccupation of a high-roller. As his wife the fragilely beautiful Julie Delpy hints at wounds and passions underneath her curt exterior, which the film doesn't explore. The only other performance of note is the laconic Janusz Gajos's as Karol's dour Polish business partner, benefactor in his hard Parisian times, now teetering on the edge of an unexplained abyss. His mixture of gruffness and soulfulness resembles Kieslowski himself.

Kieslowski's last two films were distinguished by their soaring spirituality and gleaming visuals - the cerulean shiver of Blue and the golden glow of The Double Life of Veronique. White is much plainer, shot for the most part in a grey half-light, the deathly pallor Kieslowski seems to associate with his Polish homeland. The exception is a flashback scene, to Karol's wedding, which we return to a few times, with Delpy walking down the aisle towards the open doors and the glow of sunlight outside. The camera sways from side to side, as if attached to her veil. It's a fleeting moment of transcendence in a film which is dourly realistic (except in the trunk scene, when Kieslowski seems to gloss over the existence of X-ray security cameras).

Devotees will enjoy watching small pieces of the trilogy's puzzle slot into place - such as a shot of Juliette Binoche bursting into the law courts which matches up with a scene in Blue. But even they may wonder if it is all quite enough. Kieslowski has grouchily insisted that he is retiring now that the trilogy is completed (Red will open here in the autumn). The manner of his going may illuminate his work, perhaps pointing up a pusillanimity that prevents him from being a great artist. This hugely talented director seems to do everything with a shrug - scratching at subjects rather than excavating them. The Double Life of Veronique and Blue have moments of greatness that have persuaded many, myself included, that they are great films. But the more we see of his work, the more they look like sketches towards masterpieces.

White is sketchier than that. It's made with marvellous economy, and there are moments of wistful beauty - a mysterious shot of Delpy bowing her head in the shadow of a doorway, seen halfway through the film, which turns out to be a flash- forward to her arrival in Warsaw; a tragi-comic scene as Karol, schooling himself in French verbs with an audio-tape, reaches 'Would that I had pleased', and kisses a plaster saint on the lips. But these are glimmers in a film that manages to be oppressive as well as slight. The word from Cannes is that Red redeems the trilogy, tying up its loose ends. It will have to, if Kieslowski is not to leave his audience sceptical rather than satisfied.

While Kieslowski gazes at the heavens, meditating on the metaphysical, John Waters scrabbles in the gutter, dirtying himself with the trash. The latest film by the Prince of Tackiness, director of such toxic classics as Polyester and Pink Flamingos, is one of his mildest and best. Kathleen Turner plays Serial Mom (18), a Baltimore housewife, whose apple-pie exterior conceals a compulsion to harass innocuous neighbours with obscene phone calls, and bump off, gruesomely, anyone who crosses her family. Turner has a gay old time. She's always found it hard to restrain the lush beneath the lusciousness, and now she needn't try. At one point she gives such a broad, resonating wink that her face seems to have turned into rubber.

Waters' script is a light-hearted satire on the media's obsession with serial killers, and its fixation on the Jekyll-and-Hyde stereotype (the mild-mannered individual with a fridge full of corpses). He's particularly good at guying the way these horrors have become entertainments, tragedy buried under flippancy. As the truth dawns about Mom, Turner's kids are thrilled at the thought of having a celebrity psychopath in the family. We're also reminded of the spurious analysis the media uses to justify its prurience. A subtitle of a digital-clock reading opens each scene ('Sunday May 16, 10.37am'), to mock the way voyeurism poses as scientific rigour.

Waters has a gimlet eye for the absurd detail. There's a beautiful offbeat moment when a squad of police cars tracks Turner down to her local church (where the vicar is pointing out that Christ didn't speak out against capital punishment on the cross); as the cops get out, their car doors slam shut like a row of falling dominoes. Not everything is so subtle. A director who in the past has made us watch excrement being eaten is not going to pass up the opportunity of a few over-indulged gorings and an extraneous bloodbath. And the fact that Turner is so clearly as batty as hell does little justice to the terror and complexity of real-life psychopathy. But all the minor performances are pitched just the right side of manic, and the parody is stitched into a proper plot (unlike Naked Gun 331 3 ). For the most part it's good, unclean fun.

Edgar Allen Poe meets MTV in The Crow (18), a comic-strip-derived tale of a young man's revenge on the gang that raped and killed his girl and murdered him (he has returned from the grave, guided by The Crow, symbol of restless souls). Luridly lit, jumpily edited and searingly scored, the film is little more than an extended pop video, the thin plot an excuse for an orgy of destruction and vengeful violence. Brandon Lee, who died in an explosion on set, gives a performance that in less tragic circumstances would have been promising: his painted white face has a feminine vulnerability, and the purposeful grace of his movements, as he glides over rain-slicked rooftops, may remind you of his father, Bruce. It's painfully easy to infer how he died from the pyrotechnic chaos on screen. The stylish computer graphics and dark design can't disguise the confusion of the filming - a confusion that killed.

Rarely can a film have been so self-satisfied, with so little cause, as the mincing French comedy Fausto (15), which is hectic in its desire to charm us with its spiky-haired Parisian orphan hero, who dreams of fashion designing, and his flatulent friend who hopes to play the 1812 Overture with his wind. The film has all the treacliness of a musical, without the songs. It ends abruptly, as if the money had run out, though few will complain.

The Air Up There (15) is about a basketball coach (Kevin Bacon) who finds a great player in a remote, embattled Kenyan tribe. Directed by Paul Michael Glaser, who seems to have learned nothing about dramatic pacing from his time acting in Starsky and Hutch, it has too much Africa and too little ball. I would give the whole thing for one slam dunk from Hakeem Olajuwon, the African American now starring for Houston in the NBA final.

Cinema details: Review, page 74. In addition to the cinemas listed, 'Three Colours: White' is showing at the Screen on the Hill (071- 435 3366; progs 2.40 4.40 6.45 8.55) and the Curzon West End (071-439 4805; progs 2.55 4.45 6.50 8.55).

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