Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ‘La Double Vie de Véronique’ (1991)

01Feb09
Irene Jacob in 'The Double Life of Veronique'

The more I attempt to analyze films by Krzysztof Kieslowski I realize that I shouldn’t worry about figuring everything out. Mystery is an integral part of the ambiance of Kieslowski’s work. In the case of The Double Life of Véronique, two women from different countries who were born on the same day and look exactly alike are aware of each other and able to learn from each other’s mistakes and experiences even though they have never met. How these women are connected to each other is never explained nor do Kieslowski and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz even attempt an explanation. The Double Life very much comes from the perspective of what if someone had a doppelganger without regard as to how or why.

Kieslowski seemingly shoots this film as though trying to remind the audience that they are spectators, perhaps even voyeurs. The characters and the camera often look through things, such as Weronika peering through her glass ball that causes the scenery outside the train to appear upside-down and her father looking at a painting through a magnifying glass. This recurring image of looking through objects and surfaces also brings the idea of perspective to the forefront of the film. Kieslowski challenges the viewer’s perspective very early with the inverted Polish cityscape, which the audience may not recognize until seeing the subsequent shot of the little girl being held upside-down by her mother. In some shots, the camera tilts almost as an afterthought, as though catching up with the character’s perspective, reminding the viewer that events are being seen through a particular set of eyes.

As one can infer from the title, the idea of doubling is central to the film. Of course, the main characters are doubles, but Kieslowski takes the concept so much farther than that both story-wise and visually. 'The Double Life of Veronique' posterKieslowski often captures characters and their reflections in the same shot and includes other visual “doubles” like the upside-down cityscape in Weronika’s glass ball. Alexandre’s profession as a puppeteer also introduces a different presentation of a double. Puppets are created in the likeness of human beings, doubling people in a way, and for Alexandre puppets act as doubles on which he may project his emotions. When Alexandre realizes that Véronique has been watching him in a mirror during his puppet show, witnessing his emotional response to the story, he reacts and seems exposed in a way that he did not feel when he thought people were watching only his puppets. And as in Red, the idea of doubles or doubling offers characters second chances, most notably in Véronique’s case.

As he does in the Three Colors trilogy, Kieslowski, with the able help of director of photography Slawomir Idziak, delights in creating beautiful images from mundane occurrences and objects, like the dust from an old ceiling floating down like snow. Idziak, who again teamed up with Kieslowski for Blue, does lovely work with lighting, creating perhaps a fourth “color” film: gold. Zbigniew Preisner’s haunting, melancholy score is pushed to the foreground, as it is in Blue, underscoring the similarities for me between Kieslowski’s and Preisner’s work: both men appreciate silence. Preisner’s frequent use of rests distinguishes his compositions from others’, and similarly Kieslowski’s films are some of very few that often have long stretches of complete silence — no dialogue, no ambient sounds, just silence.

Irène Jacob, who also stars in Kieslowski’s Red, may play two women who look alike but Weronika and Véronique are certainly not interchangeable. Weronika seems very much like Valentine from Red: warm, open, and almost child-like in her joy and manner of experiencing the world. Weronika greets all of life’s experiences, even being rained on, with a welcome embrace. Véronique, however, approaches life with much more reserve and caution. Jacob gives the impression that had Kieslowski captured a longer span of Weronika and Véronique’s lives that the former would have made most of the “mistakes” while the latter learned from them. But as either woman Jacob is a joy to watch, offering a thoroughly engaging, nuanced performance. I almost shudder to think how the film would have turned out had Kieslowski cast his first choice, Andie MacDowell. And making an impressive performance all the more remarkable, Jacob learned Polish to perform her part as Weronika, even though her lines were ultimately dubbed by a native speaker because of Jacob’s accent.

As I watched The Double Life, particularly the second half, I was reminded of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s delightful, fairy-tale romance Amélie. Véronique finding Alexandre at a train station by listening to a tape of ambient noises seems very much like something Nino and Amélie might have done during their unique courtship, though The Double Life lacks the whimsical, fantastic tone of Amélie. Instead, The Double Life feels like a fairy tale treated as a noir piece, with its somber tone and moody lighting. This film not only deserves but demands multiple viewings to untangle the intricacies of Kieslowski and Piesiewicz’s script, which is perhaps Kieslowski’s point in all of this, asking the audience to think about the unseen impact of our lives on others’.

'The Double Life of Veronique'
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