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on 2 May 2016
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1991 masterpiece The Double Life of Véronique (La Double vie de Véronique) is quite simply one of the most beautiful films ever made. This is evidenced on virtually every level – an extraordinarily empathetic and intensely moving central double performance from Irène Jacob, a superbly oneiric musical score from Zbigniew Preisner, gorgeous sepia-toned cinematography from Sławomir Idziak, and a deeply rigorous and profound screenplay worked out with Kieślowski from Krzysztof Piesiewicz which manages to be as light and fanciful on the one hand as it is spiritual and metaphysical on the other. Kieślowski is famous for making down-to-earth disparaging comments about the possible deeper meanings that lie within his films (“For me, a bottle of milk is simply a bottle of milk…Nothing more.”), but despite the modesty on display there is no doubt that he is always getting at something altogether deeper and he welcomes interpretation by people if it means they connect with his films – “I don’t film metaphors. People only read them as metaphors, which is very good. That’s what I want.” The greatest beauty of The Double Life of Véronique lies in its all-embracing open-endedness for it can be appreciated as much emotionally as it can intellectually and evidently embodies the very essence of what drives Kieślowski to make films in the first place – “That’s why I do this [make films] – to make people experience something. It doesn’t matter if they experience it intellectually or emotionally. You make films to give people something to transport them somewhere else and it doesn’t matter if you transport them to a world of intuition or a world of the intellect.”
Kieślowski’s “world of intuition” is expressed in this film by an uncountable number of binary parallels and opposites inherent in the central premise. A film in two halves, two girls are born on the same day in 1966, Weronika in Poland and Véronique in France. The first we see of them is in 1968 when Weronika is shown the stars in the sky (the first star of Christmas) by her off-screen mother and Véronique is shown a leaf (the first leaf of spring) by hers. 98 minutes later the film (at least in the European print) closes on Véronique sitting in her car, the sky reflected in the windscreen and her hand reaching out to touch a tree – everything begins and ends in nature both spiritual and earthly. By 1990 both mothers have died and Weronika/Véronique are being raised by their loving fathers, both of whom are artists. Weronika’s father is a painter while Véronique’s is a wood craftsman. This continues the binary relationship between heavenly/spiritual and earthly/practical. Weronika/Véronique both have heart conditions and both have aspirations to be singers. Both girls feel the presence of the other even though they are ignorant of each other and the feeling defies rational explanation – “The film is about sensibility, presentiments and relationships, which are difficult to name, which are irrational” (Kieślowski). Weronika tells her father she feels she is “not alone” in the world and when she dies, Véronique immediately feels bereft, as if she has lost a kindred spirit. She has her parallel conversation with her father in which she says she has recently felt she was alone in the world. Not only that, but she feels as if she is being guided – “I always sense what I have to do,” she says. When Weronika ignores her heart condition and continues to sing, her eventual death leads to Véronique deciding immediately to give up her singing lessons. As Kieślowski says, “Véronique’s constantly faced with the choice of whether or not to take the same road as the Polish Weronika, whether to give in to the artistic instinct and the tension intrinsic in art or to give in to love and all that involves. This, basically, is her choice.” The film shows Weronika destroying herself for art while Véronique chooses the power of love, the spirit of the dead Weronika haunting her with reminders of what she has given up. The intuition felt between the women takes us to the heart of Kieślowski’s world wherein human life is defined by choices made, the choices not made living on and haunting us as unrealized potentialities. This works both ways in the film for Weronika gives up her boyfriend Antek (Jerzy Gudejko) and with it the possibility of love by pursuing her singing, while Véronique gives up her artistic gift for the more ephemeral pleasures of love in the shape of the puppeteer/childrens’ author Alexandre Fabbri (Philippe Volter). This is subtly underlined in the film by their first lovemaking taking place in a hotel in room 287, the very same room number where Antek was vainly waiting in a different hotel (in a different country!) for Weronika earlier in the film. The pleasures are ephemeral because Alexandre turns out to be an artist who sublimates everything into his own art including Véronique’s own life. Like Weronika he chooses art over love and Veronique is doomed to suffering as a consequence.
The film’s emotional pull relies strongly on recurring imagery which continues the binary structure of the film. Two countries are made to look and feel the same by use of the same golden filter over Idziak’s camera and the incessant use of Preisner’s music which Weronika/Véronique are involved with. Weronika dies while singing a piece by a fictional 18th century composer Van der Budenmajer (Preisner of course) while Véronique later teaches the same score to her students at school. The same eerie high flute accompanies strange lights and spiritual visitations while effective keyboard pieces are deployed, one either side of the death which splits the film in two. There’s a beautiful harpsichord (harp? celesta?) piece which plays during Weronika’s conversation with her father and then on through her train ride to Kraków. Then there’s a simple but moving piano accompaniment to Alexandre’s puppet show story of a dancer who lives in her box, dances, breaks her leg and dies only to be reborn as a butterfly as the music goes back to the Budenmajer piece that ‘killed’ Weronika. Clearly the puppet show acts as a conduit wherein Véronique sees her ‘double’ dying and being reborn as a spirit which will continue to haunt her (she thinks) in the shape of Alexandre who effects a meeting through poetic means of his own. For Véronique her meeting with Alexandre is her spiritual destination, the co-joining with her other half which she has long felt and long wanted to meet. But she is destined to be disillusioned…
With repeated viewings, we recognize the immense sophistication of Kieślowski’s binary scheme more and more. Room 287 highlights the film’s central preoccupation with chance and this is carried on through the subtle use of objects – a lip chap-stick used by Weronika found later in Véronique’s handbag, a clear rubber ball with stars inside which Weronika plays with, studying the world through it out of the train window and then banging it with joy on the floor at having won an audition. This is later found by Alexandre among Véronique’s handbag contents which she has spilled across the bed. There’s a ring which Weronika uses to massage the bottom of her eyes which Veronique also has and uses the same way much later. Then there’s the near-meeting of Weronika/Véronique in Kraków where Weronika sees Véronique taking photos from a tour bus, the negative of which turns up later in her handbag, the photo of her Polish twin clearly visable along with the ball as she rises to orgasm in her lover’s arms. Most bizarrely of all there’s a shoe lace sent by Alexandre which is meant by Kieślowski to symbolize the life line on an EKG reading which measures Weronika’s/Véronique’s heart. When stretched taut it means death so that when Véronique measures the lace alongside her EKG read-out and pulls the lace tight we immediately connect it with the earlier scene of Weronika tripping herself over her laces while running through a puddle and of her finishing her singing audition by pulling the string tying a score together taut as she reaches the most strenuous part – the part at which she will later die in concert. We also connect it with the rope we see holding Weronika’s coffin as it is lowered into the ground, the extraordinary shot rendered as a point of view shot upwards from Weronika’s dead body.
Kieślowski realizes that life is beyond easy encapsulation and along with repetitive imagery which we can easily decipher there are also enigmatic elements which defy categorization such as the repeated image of an old woman walking along the street. In Poland the woman is lumbered with shopping and Weronika throws open the window, offering to help. In France Véronique relates her dream to her father of seeing an old woman walking up a road between trees towards a red-bricked church, but then we see her looking out of the window of her classroom where her kids are practicing Budenmajer and see the old woman, but with no shopping and no church. Actually we see the red bricked church earlier as Weronika (not Véronique) looks through her ball, the image upside down in a staggeringly beautiful poetic image. These images are as enigmatic as the ones of the old lady trying to put a bottle into a bottle bank in each of the Three Colors films. Perhaps the purpose is simply to say something about the difference in temperament between Weronika and Véronique. Weronika is cheerful, effervescent, restless, and childlike (especially as dubbed by Anna Gornostaj) and her offer of help to the old woman expresses her youthful high spirits and genuine good nature. Véronique is much more introspective, haunted by the loss of her mysterious ‘other half’ as shown in the two love making scenes which should be times of joy, but which are actually times of anguish, the first coinciding with Weronika’s burial and the second with the discovery of the photo of Weronika by Alexandre. Love making is about two people uniting, but here Véronique is alone and vulnerable in both cases. Her image out of the window (it’s not certain it ‘is’ out of the window for the texture of the image has a disconnected daydream quality) is of an old woman walking, but Véronique does nothing except look and contemplate. Enigma also continues over the mysterious stern ‘woman with hat’ who looks at Weronika scowling at the fact that she has won the singing audition, and then reappears later in the Gare St. Lazare in Paris staring at Véronique twice (once standing and then later sitting) as she tries to find the café where Alexandre hopefully is waiting for her.
Engima and fantasy hover most obviously over the way Alexandre engineers Véronique’s tryst with him, and is the point at which skeptics may well walk away from the film. A heavy-breathing phone call and then the Budenmajer music (how does he know her phone number? How does he know the significance of the Budenmajer?) is followed by Véronique getting a shoe lace in the mail (What is the possibility she would immediately link the lace with a short story he has written?), strong flickering light refracted into her face as she wakes up in her room which suggests the butterfly of the short story his puppet play was about as well as of course the spirit of Weronika (But how could he know that?), and then the receipt of a tape with ambient noise of (it turns out) Paris Gare St. Lazare where Véronique eventually goes and discovers him having waited over 48 hours sitting in a café. All of this is very far-fetched and we only have two threads to really guide us – Véronique’s belief that she is fulfilling her spiritual destiny, that Alexandre is her soul partner whom she has been yearning for all her life and then Alexandre’s machinations as over-arching artist creator. This is where intuition gives way to intellect and it becomes clear that what Kieślowski has given here is as intensely metaphysical as it is whimsically fanciful.
In the café it emerges that Alexandre has gone to great trouble to lure Véronique out in order to prove a theorem so that he can write a book about it. He proves to himself that it is possible to write a story based on a female character meeting her destiny through intuition alone. Then at the very end of the film Alexandre is shown making two puppets in the image of Véronique and he makes clear to her that he is going to use her life story not only in a book, but in a puppet play as well. The puppet play is to be entitled ‘The Double Life of…’, the name not being decided yet, but of course we and Véronique know. I would suggest that both the ‘book’ and the ‘puppet play’ are metaphors for the film we are watching and that Alexandre is a doppelgänger for the film’s artistic creator, Kieślowski himself. This makes the whole film a piece of meta-fiction in which the artist manipulates absolutely everything we see to depict in binary terms his own universe which is one based on chance, choices made and choices ignored and the inter-relationship between the two. Most obviously, this explains the film’s emphasis on each element of the film-making process and the heightened artificiality inherent in that. The film looks artificial (the gold lens filter coating each frame in ‘false’ luminance constantly tells us we are watching a film), sounds artificial (note especially the way Budenmajer’s/Preisner’s concert piece is electronically distorted as the soprano voice soars upwards to the conductor’s visable amazement just before Weronika’s collapse) and feels artificial. The story is outwardly preposterous and the careful binary presentation of two worlds, two countries, two people, suggests the creator’s hands are forever hovering over events, guiding, manipulating and defining both the story and us in the audience. Most obvious here is the puppet show which is in effect a film-within-a-film as Alexandre presents his story which he (being Kieślowski himself) deliberately makes a metaphor for Véronique’s own life experience. Kieślowski has said it was very important for him that the puppeteer’s hands remain visable throughout and Bruno Schwarz was chosen because he is one of the few puppeteers who believe in not hiding his hands. This insistence on the visability of hands underlines Kieślowski’s intention to present his film as if manipulated by a higher force. The identity of this ‘higher force’ is clearly shown by the film’s later scene in his studio where Alexandre wraps Véronique from behind, playing one of his Véronique dolls in front of her (hands clearly visable) as the second Véronique (Weronika of course) lies dead on the table.
On an even larger scale of course this film’s over-arching artist creator is none other than God Himself, and that is probably the level on which those with Faith will read it. Certainly the opening and closing images of sky (stars) and nature (leaves/trees) frame a universe arranged in binary order and there are images and scenes which can be linked with religion. The quick camera movement over the heads of members of the audience after Weronika’s collapse strongly suggest her spirit taking flight having been released from the body that once contained it. The words of Budenmajer’s orchestral setting are taken from Dante’s Divine Comedy (Paradiso, II, 1-9). Véronique is ‘visited’ by Weronika’s spirit not only in the music, but also in poetic images, for example a ghost-like image of Weronika’s head singing and collapsing at the end of Alexandre’s phone call. The butterfly rising from the ‘dead’ puppet could be an angel, perhaps Véronique’s guardian angel who tells her “what [she has] to do.” Also there are references to churches and the image of Kraków cathedral. We should be careful though not to be too literal as an ambiguous image near the film’s beginning demonstrates. A giant statue is dragged by a truck, the figure standing with one arm raised as if to bless. Is this image Marx or Jesus? Poland being a Communist as well as Catholic country, it could be both as the backlighting deliberately makes it hard for us to tell. Kieślowski is actually on record as being agnostic and tempting as it is to read the film’s spiritualism religiously, we should remember that spiritualism doesn’t have to be connected with God, or a belief in God. New Age spiritualism separates one from the other and the film can be read both ways, the over-arching artistic creator finally being unquantifiable and unknowable. This is finally Kieślowski’s point I guess. He doesn’t want to get specific. More simply he just wants to approach that inner spiritual life that lays inside all of us whether we have Faith or not. He says, “The realm of superstitions, fortune telling, intuition, dreams, all this is the inner life of a human being, and all this is the hardest thing to film. Even though I know that it can’t be filmed however hard I try, the simple fact is that I’m taking this direction to get as close to this as my skill allows…[the] goal is to capture what lies within us, but there’s no way of filming it. You can only get nearer to it.”
There’s no question in my mind that Kieślowski is one of the greatest film directors of the last 30 years or so and The Double Life of Véronique is one of his most outstanding achievements. Set squarely in two countries, it marks the transition in his career from Polish film maker to international director. Some have said he betrays his roots here, but I think the film’s many connections with his past work disprove this. The idea of a character defining his/her life by making a choice with the possible outcomes lingering on and affecting this choice was first used in Blind Chance (1982), while the idea of the dead affecting the lives of the living ‘from beyond the grave’ had been announced in No End (1984). That was the film which marked the first collaboration between Kieślowski, Piesiewicz and Preisner, and Kieślowski’s focus on metaphysical matters from that time on in Dekalog (1988) and in the Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94) is largely put down to this three-way partnership, especially (I would say) Piesiewicz who was the originator of all these projects. The Double Life of Véronique emanated out of an episode of Dekalog 9 which briefly features an outstanding girl soprano who has to give up her career because of her heart condition. On Dekalog it was agreed between Kieślowski and Piesiewicz to cut out anything about the internal politics of Poland in view of the series being set for international distribution. The Double Life of Véronique continues the stress on metaphysics over politics, though there is still a Solidarity demonstration scene which Weronika perhaps pointedly walks away from, and the scene gets its binary reflection in the exploding car scene outside the café in the Gare St. Lazare, without which Véronique certainly would never have found Alexandre who had captured the sound of the explosion on the audio tape sent to her. That this film is an extraordinarily addictive and hypnotic experience owes a lot to all the various elements of the film-making process. Clearly Kieślowski, Piesiewicz and Preisner all excel themselves as they did in everything from No End right through to the director’s unfortunate early death, but I want to end with Irène Jacob. Present in every scene and the luminous light of the whole film, it would be impossible to imagine this film without her. She renders the two roles with such breathtaking range and skill. The childlike innocent Weronika is perfectly contrasted with her haunted introspective Véronique and we see the added load on her character with such clarity. Just to choose one example, the way she reacts at the end to the realization that Alexandre is using her story for his puppet show is so convincing. In her eyes we see very clearly the disillusionment and the pain that she is going through. With a performance less nuanced than hers, this film would have fallen as flat as a pancake. As it is the film is a beautiful miracle.
NB: I am reviewing a Tartan video tape which I transcribed to DVD by myself. It features the American ending which Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein insisted on. Apparently the original ending was deemed unclear, the fact that the guy cutting wood is Véronique’s father and that she has driven home are left opaque for American viewers. Kieślowski was obliged to shoot three extra shots – of the father coming out, a long shot of Véronique getting out of the car and running to him, and then the final image of the two hugging shot from inside the house, actually with a mirror to one side so that we see two couples hugging. Kieślowski has gone public saying he doesn’t object to this new ending so we also shouldn’t object I suppose. But I prefer the ending with the sky and the tree - doubling with the film’s very opening images it just makes so much more sense. It looks like the Criterion DVD/Blu-ray version is the one to get. That features the original ending with the American one as an option. It also features three short films (Factory , Hospital , Railway Station ) and a commentary by Annette Insdorf, author of the book Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski. I can’t comment on the Artificial Eye release.