The Singular History of ‘The Double Life of Véronique’

[17 March 2011]

By Michael Curtis Nelson

Even before its 1991 release, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s enigmatic The Double Life of Véronique had taken on many more guises than the dual existence of the title. As he grappled with how suggestive or explicit to make the film, Kieslowski produced 21 different cuts, all based on an uncanny, and deceptively simple, premise—two young women, one living in Poland (Veronika) and one in France (Véronique), share a striking resemblance, and though they never meet, each feels the other’s influence. Until producers balked at the prohibitive cost, Kieslowski even considered scuttling the effort to settle on a single, definitive cut, in favor of releasing multiple versions of The Double Life of Véronique, one for each of the 17 theaters of its initial Paris run.

Kieslowski got his way after all, without the additional expense. The final cut seen in theaters hints at a significance that remains tantalizingly unstated, leading to deeply personal and divergent interpretations. Reviewers who haven’t bridled in frustration at the film’s opacity have labored to fill in the blanks themselves, often finding refuge in that most desperate of critical gambits: allegory. Veronika represents Poland after the fall of communism or the Solidarity movement in the wake of martial law, some have argued, while Véronique stands for the West triumphant.

Before Miramax distributed The Double Life of Véronique in the US, Harvey Weinstein insisted Kieslowski add several shots to the film’s ending to provide more clarity, though the augmented conclusion does little to resolve the film’s central mystery. (The Criterion Collection Blu-ray, with features and extras identical to the 2006 Criterion DVD release, includes the alternate American ending.)

A chief joy of watching, and rewatching, this film is discovering narrative and generic threads. It’s as if the final cut distills all of Kiewsloski’s provisional edits into one concentrated dose. One example: The Double Life of Véronique has no business not being a horror film. Like many a good chiller, the film’s premise derives from superstition, in this case the folk belief that each of us has an identical double somewhere in the world, and that seeing one’s alter ego is a harbinger of death. Veronika and Véronique (both played by Irène Jacob) almost meet, when the latter takes a trip to Krakow, where Veronika is living. As Veronika walks through a square she catches a glimpse of Véronique inside a passing bus, and notes the resemblance; Véronique, busy photographing demonstrators in the square, is oblivious. Not long after, Veronika dies while singing in a concert, succumbing to a heart condition shared by both women.

Experiencing feelings of loss that she can’t explain, and intuiting her vulnerability, Véronique gives up her own singing ambitions to focus on her job as a school music teacher. She takes up with Alexandre (Philippe Volter), a puppeteer whose performance at her school has touched her. One day by chance he discovers a sheet of thumbnails from the roll of photos Véronique shot in Krakow. Finally, Véronique sees her double. At this point, the horror plot would most likely have led to a discovery of the truth behind the folk belief, an investigation into Veronika’s life and death, and perhaps a revelation of why Véronique would or wouldn’t share Veronika’s fate. None of this happens; no revelations ensue. Instead, Alexandre divines Véronique’s situation and appropriates it for his art.

Another thread: the film is full of artists and artisans. In addition to the singers, musicians, and the puppeteer, Veronika’s father paints and Véronique’s father works with wood. The Double Life of Véronique foregrounds the ubiquity of interpretation, artistic or otherwise. Instances of mediated reality fill the film: a cathedral seen through a train window is distorted by imperfections in the glass; a clear rubber ball that Véronique holds up to the light inverts and gives a fish-eye perspective to scenes. The world may just be too volatile to experience first-hand, the fate of Veronika seems to suggest. Perhaps Véronique will avoid a similar demise, because she witnessed her double after the fact, and via the mechanical reproduction of photography.

Oddly enough for a film renowned for its otherworldly beauty, The Double Life of Véronique derives much of its vitality from skills Kieslowski honed making documentaries, his chief occupation for the first decade and a half of his career. The Criterion Collection edition includes three of Kieslowski’s short documentaries, and a 2005 featurette by Luc Lagier on the director’s work from 1966 to 1988 explicates his documentary style, including his penchant for looking “behind the gloss of Communist propaganda”. That will to unveil secrets informs Kieslowski’s fictional films as well. In one of a series of interviews made during the filming of The Double Life of Véronique, he explains that he turned away from documentary film when he realized that pushing the format to record “people’s innermost thoughts and emotions” was too invasive.

In The Double Life of Véronique the camera has the same probing, investigative insistence as in Kieslowski’s documentaries detailing a day in a Polish hospital, or the experiences of workers and management at a factory, but now set free from the constraints the director placed upon himself in his documentary work. In an early shot of Veronika singing with a choir outdoors as rain begins to fall, the camera lingers on her face so long it almost feels like a violation. Yet the length of the scene is essential to establishing her childlike ebullience, which distinguishes her from the more reserved Véronique.

With The Double Life of Véronique, Kieslowski seems to have found the ideal hybrid cinematic form. Freed from the limitations of documentary and the preoccupations of communist Poland, he made a film that not only witnesses “people’s innermost thoughts and emotions” without flinching, but also represents that drive to connect as fundamentally human, yet achingly difficult to achieve.

In addition to the features mentioned above, disc extras include interviews with Jacob, cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, and composer Zbigniew Preisner. The companion booklet contains production facts, an essay by Jonathan Romney placing The Double Life of Véronique in the context of Kieslowski’s work and ‘90s film, and excerpts from the 1993 book Kieslowski on Kieslowski.

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