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The Double Life of Veronique: Kieslowski and Pure Emotion

Written by Kevin Pearson.

Photo from the article Perhaps the best thing about the one hundred year-plus history of cinema is that there have come to be so many different kinds of great films. Years ago, the critical opinion of great filmmaking was limited largely to Hollywood and to the few areas around the world that challenged Hollywood with their own specific approaches to filmmaking. As film became further accepted as an art, the term ‘cinematic’ came to cover a wider range of aesthetic ideas and theories. All sorts of different philosophies and structures emerged from around the world - from new methods of storytelling in 60s ‘Art Films’ such as L’Avventura (1960) to the advent of films with essay subjects, like Hitler, A Film From Germany (1978). Krzysztof Kieslowski entered into this tradition of diversity when he made The Double Life of Veronique (1991), an ambitious work on the nature of metaphysics that challenged cinematic conventions and, I would argue, introduced new ideas into film art.

Even today, The Double Life of Veronique stands out as the most unique and ambiguous film of Kieslowski’s career. It is the mysterious story of - seemingly - two women, one living in Poland and the other in France, whose lives share similarities so intimate that they seem to be connected with one another. When one dies, the other feels grief so foreign and strong that she has no idea what to make of it. Towards the film’s end the woman in France, Veronique, discovers a picture of a woman resembling herself and is captivated by the possibilities of what it means, leaving her to focus on the metaphysical possibilities of the world around her.

Before the film was made, the project was considered an alien one for Kieslowski. Having made his mark on Polish cinema first with short documentaries that extended back to the 1960s, he became the face of Polish filmmaking during the mid 70s and the 80s with films like The Scar (1976) and Camera Buff (1979) that explored the post-war despair of Poland; films like No End (1984) also had political implications that drew on his documentary period. In his fictional work, however, he was beginning to explore subjects and themes that would anticipate The Double Life of Veronique, making 'personal' films that focused on the place of luck and fate in life. Blind Chance (1987) lived up to its title, while The Decalogue (1989/90) looked at the concept of fate as guided by the moral messages of the Ten Commandments.

The similarities that these films had to other Polish works were their fairly modest subjects and bleak themes. The difference was that Kieslowski was beginning to show an interest in his subjects that made him unique amongst his peers. Having come from a constricted world under the reign of the Soviet Union, he didn’t continue to focus on the social and political like many other filmmakers, preferring instead to probe other, philosophical and emotional themes. As he stated in one interview, “There are too many things in the world which divide people, such as religion, politics, history, and nationalism. If culture is capable of anything, then it is finding that which unites us all… Feelings are what link people together, because the word `love' has the same meaning for everybody. Or `fear', or `suffering'. We all fear the same way and the same things. And we all love in the same way.” This belief sounds simple, but it was also the means for him to be able to make the drastic jump towards a very different type of film, The Double Life of Veronique.

The Double Life of Veronique was Kieslowski’s first film featuring an international cast as well as being an international production (with half the film set in Poland and the other in France), yet it is also not a complete break with Poland and with his past filmmaking style. The film has many of the hallmarks of Kieslowski’s past, whilst simultaneously showing the future he was about to step into, with his Three Colours trilogy (1993/4). The first part of the story (set in Poland) deals with Veronika, allowing Kieslowski to implement his old filmmaking realism to ensure that certain aspects of Polish life stand out: in one scene, Veronika is shown in the midst of a street protest, and in another we see the transportation of a statue of Vladimir Lenin. These cues tie the film to Kieslowski’s past style, but set it instructively alongside all the elements that mark the material as new ground for him.

A major part of the success of The Double Life of Veronique is linked to what Kieslowski was able to do with a big international production. The evolution to higher production values had a certain amount to do with greater financial opportunity, but was also seemingly based on a new aesthetic choice and sensibility that, in a sense, chose to idealize the world instead of showing it for its gritty ‘realist’ core. It is a comparable decision to the one that filmmakers like Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni made in transitioning from black and white to colour: they didn’t do it at their first opportunity, but only when they wanted to tackle the aesthetic responsibility of working in a different style. As Roger Ebert said about Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965): “It is the work of a director who has cut loose from the realism of his early work and is toying with the images, situations and obsessions that delight him.” When Fellini entered his ‘Fellini-esque’ carnival stage, he needed the backdrop of colour and a bigger budget to fulfill his fantasies on screen.

Kieslowski’s switch to a more sophisticated production style allowed him to give a more rounded approach to conveying the themes in this film. As he once said, “It’s a film about emotions and nothing else.” Kieslowski thus layers his film with colours, textures and a plot that all emphasize the emotions in the story. The scenes play like meditations, with colours and music fully inhabiting scenes. There is little standard narrative drama here, rather there is a collection of moments from characters’ lives that assume fuller meaning because of the force that the colours and music play in their characterization. The end result of the textures of the scenes is a film that in fact almost has a closer relationship to the avant-garde than to traditional narrative drama. Small, precise moments make up the film; every shade of colour and texture is not only supporting the story through mise-en-scene, but is a development of the film’s themes and ideas.

The push into the avant-garde is detailed in the story. Both Veronique and Veronika are singers. Music is at the heart of their passion and singing brings about the demise for the latter. Instead of Kieslowski filming to capture music as background, he uses it throughout the film to dig at the emotions. As Annette Insdorf commented, “The choral music during the credits turn out to be sung by Veronika in the rainy street. But Preisner’s melodies continue like magical aural strings between the two women, invoking invisible forces at work.” Kieslowski did a similar thing in Blue by focusing on Juliette Binoche’s character through her deceased husband’s music, which continues to haunt her after a tragic accident.

While the audience is aware of the connections between Veronique and Veronika, Veronique is not. She unknowingly grieves for Veronika’s death, but doesn’t know what this grief means. The film therefore introduces a character to make Veronique more aware of her surroundings: through the puppeteer, Alexandre. Veronique becomes aware of him at one of his performances, becoming entranced by the performance and by him. The texture of his face in a mirror, and the music surrounding the performance enthrall her. The scene offers little explanation of why there is romantic interest, but Veronique’s intense focus on him and his performance links her character very emotionally to him in a way that the audience is made to understand.

Kieslowski explained that the reason he used a puppeteer was because he felt he needed something delicate as well as mysterious. The character fits because his presence is never overstated, and his art allows for emotional connection. When it becomes evident that there is interest between both characters for one another, Alexandre challenges Veronique’s attention by sending her mysterious presents, like a string in the mail, or playing music over the phone but never identifying himself. The audience knows the string is personal to Veronika because in an earlier scene she was playing with it while auditioning. Veronique then looks to a similar string in her apartment that is also attached to music sheets. The music is obviously personal to both women because it relates back to their shared singing.

The floodgates open to the world of the metaphysical when Alexandre discovers a picture of Veronika in Veronique’s collection of photographs. First he assumes it is her, but Veronique attests to the fact it isn’t - yet she can’t help but become overwhelmed by the possibilities of what this connection could mean. The purpose of Alexandre finally becomes clear. As Kieslowski explains, “Alexandre’s made Veronique aware that something else exists, that the other Veronika did exist. He’s the one who noticed, and perhaps he understood what she couldn’t understand herself.” The rest of the story shows how Alexandre weaves Veronique’s life into his art, but his initial purpose in the plot is that he is the one who begins to make her think with all her senses. His function is also made clear by the scene in which the two finally meet in a café, accomplished by him sending her a cassette of the surrounding noises of the area and hoping she is able to use the clues in the recording to track him down. It is a scene with little to do with narrative, but rather makes obvious what kind of levels the film is focusing on. In one way, The Double Life of Veronique plays into the classical sense of metaphysics as defined by Aristotle, saying that in every person there is a second life being lived elsewhere that keeps them from being alone. Because Aristotle did not define metaphysics by a specific religious doctrine, the film is able to be true to his concept, allowing it to be a purely emotional work that exists on a more abstractedly spiritual level than a religious one.

Perhaps the most unique and ambiguous element of the film, however, is its relationship to itself. One of the major literary movements of the last hundred years has been the ‘metafiction’ movement, which contains many different possible interpretations and manifestations, but all governed by a general principle: to analyse the position of an author in relation to their work of art. This has been apparent in many major works of the twentieth century, ranging from James Joyce to Kurt Vonnegaut. What is unique about The Double Life of Veronique isn’t that it just relates back to its own superficiality, but that it makes its self-reference deep within the story. At the end, when Alexandre tells Veronique he has written a book seemingly about her life called, “The Double Life…”, he implies that he really could be the author of the film, perhaps taking the role of Kieslowski within the story. Kieslowski himself never suggested this idea in interviews, but he clearly did say, “I don’t film metaphors. People only read them as metaphors, which is very good. That’s what I want. I always want to stir people to something.”

The Double Life of Veronique began life as merely a film that was crowded between two major periods of work for Kieslowski; the depths and density the film reaches on an internal level, however, make it a great and important work its own right.

This article was published on May 17, 2007.

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