La Double vie de Véronique
France / Poland / Norway, 1991
Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 29 January 2007
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Perhaps the intangibility of The Double Life of Véronique is a palpable, even if abstract, starting point in critique, but for a film that is more a physical experience than a dissectible work, better to start off simply, and with caution. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film explores emotional terrain, focusing on the depths of the human psyche, a challenge rarely attempted in narrative (and certainly not mainstream) cinema, and it does so with further abstraction and less plot than his subsequent Three Colors Trilogy. In many ways, The Double Life of Véronique is a small miracle of cinema; like director Pedro Almodóvar, Kieslowski’s strong, if largely post-mortem reputation among the art house audience has elevated a film that makes little to no sense on paper, while its emotional tone strikes a singular — perhaps perfect — key.
The irrationality begins with the film’s title, which was reportedly disliked by Kieslowski (although he could find no other). Two women inhabit this world; Polish Weronika and French Véronique, little girls glimpsed in the film’s opening who will grow to resemble one another to the point of being identical twins. The uninformed are easily confused upon an initial viewing, as for nearly a third of the film it’s hardly discernable which girl is which. Assuming that the first child gazing upside down at the stars is Weronika (mainly because Véronique’s actions, as the second child playing with a green leaf, would be a rather poetic symmetry with the film’s ending), we are introduced to a familiar yet inverted world, with an opening shot that leaves the viewer guessing at its content until it is revealed that we are with Weronika’s point of view, searching a winter’s night sky. As an adult, actress Irene Jacob portrays Weronika with the same curiosity, and an abundant passion for life. The camera cuts to Weronika singing in a choir, her face wide-eyed and open as an unexpected rainfall scatters the other singers, leaving Weronika hanging in that particular moment, vocally and physically embracing nature. Falling into the moment, Weronika seeks shelter in a passageway where she makes love with her boyfriend.
These actions, along with her sudden decision to visit a sick aunt in Krakow, establish Weronika’s almost embarrassingly fervent character. She at times displays a naiveté that perhaps fuels her passion—she moves with instinct, but not with stereotypical intention. She seeks something intangible but yet so recognizable—in Krakow she is noticed for her unusual voice, and secures a position in what appears a highly renowned Polish choir, but her happiness is not rooted in the idea of success, but rather in the joy of singing, of the experience itself. Kieslowski’s success is in accurately capturing such a feeling, and not succumbing to more concrete ideas.
The visualization of feeling is one of the film’s strongest aspects. Kieslowski’s mise en scene is mesmerizing in its focus on the odd, affecting minutiae of life: as Weronika travels to Krakow by train, the camera (again, from her point of view) commences the scene holding steady on the Polish landscape, as the sound of a train moving seeps in. The slight deception is that we are unaware it is a window, until the camera reveals the landscape gently rippling, as the sun catches it from Weronika’s observant eye, an action repeated in the tiny glass marble that she then holds up to the light, again inverting the view of her hometown. It barely lasts thirty seconds, and yet the image is haunting, as is the image that soon follows. Weronika glimpses Véronique quite suddenly, in the center of a Krakow square, unable to take her eyes away from her French double who is focusing on photographing the political demonstration in the background. What makes the sequence even more unusual is Weronika’s lack of action following it: there is no hunt for the mysterious twin, Weronika does not confide in her aunt, and she simply moves forward, no questions asked, at least not externally. This acceptance — of the unexplainable and potentially incredible — is potentially infuriating, perhaps ridiculous and unquestionably vexing, but within the context of the film, Weronika’s decision does not merely adhere to her personality, but enriches the complexity of the film as a whole, refusing to center its focus and instead placing this incident as a moment in a series, connecting to other threads, but overwhelming neither the narrative nor its characters.
As suddenly as she enters the film, Weronika departs, falling victim to a heart condition during her vocal performance. It is a bizarre exit for a character, again visually distorting in Kieslowski’s use of an extremely wide angle to provide Weronika’s point of view during the performance, to a disturbing degree as the camerawork emulates her collapse. As the audience rises to its feet, the camera glides overhead, only to reappear from the vantage point of Weronika’s grave, gazing upwards at her mourners. From this point the film reenters the world of the living, but repeated viewings offer the possibility of spiritual connection between the dead and the living; does Weronika’s soul remain, connected inextricably to her French double?
It would seem as such, as Kieslowski interlocks death with life, refocusing his gaze on Véronique in the throes of lovemaking, a wide lens warping the image and creating a fishbowl effect that feels both intrusive and intimate. While Véronique’s face mirrors Weronika’s rain-soaked jubilance, there is a sudden shift to sadness, as Véronique expresses a feeling of loss, without sure of its source. Kieslowski quickly builds connections between the two women so closely that is becomes easy to overlook their differences; certainly the physical resemblance exists, along with the loss of a mother, leaving only a father to confide in, and the passion for music. The paths diverge however, as Véronique abruptly quits singing and takes up teaching, cautiously scheduling a cardiogram during these changes, and never vocalizing the reasoning behind her decisions.
Véronique’s actions are of note, as they provide a more concrete narrative than the plot surrounding Weronika, but Kieslowski continues to draw out the emotional complexity of Véronique’s inner self while weaving in reminders of Weronika. Stepping aside from the literal mystery connecting the two women, the emotions intertwining Weronika and Véronique are intangible unto themselves: a strange sensation of loss, and the sudden feeling of not being all alone in the world; intuition that pulls one forward, and the crushing reality of a lost fantasy; faithful naiveté that is uprooted with uncertainty—these emotions are at play throughout the film, and yet Kieslowski handles them so delicately that they never feel so diametrically opposed as they might read from the page. The Double Life of Véronique should not be interpreted on such duality, despite its very name, but instead from its effort to capture such inexplicable snippets of life on celluloid.
How else might one explain the contemplative layering Kieslowski builds on a simple shoelace? Once Véronique discovers the link between the shoelace and Alexandre, the mystery ceases to focus on who is sending anonymous packages, instead drawing our attention to the visual similarity between the shoelace and the leather band Weronika twisted around her finger while auditioning, and also of Weronika’s death, as Véronique lays the shoelace out against her cardiogram results, perhaps alluding to a dual lifespan. The comparison goes beyond the idea that Véronique is living the life Weronika might have lived, but it becomes difficult to assess exactly where the connection begins, let alone its purpose. A more solid theory might be formed from Alexandre’s marionette performance, haunting in its exquisite beauty, and eerily allusive to the relationship between Weronika and Véronique; a beautiful dancer, passionate in her performance, collapses and dies, only to be resurrected as a butterfly. Kieslowski focuses not only on the marionettes during the performance, but also on Véronique’s reaction, as she sits among a crowd of students, and on her own observation of Alexandre behind the curtain, operating the puppets’ movements. If we literally connect the dots, we could easily envision Weronika’s death morphing into Véronique’s life, and conclude that the connections are not coincidental, but part of a larger scheme devised by an entity in Alexandre’s position—but again, it seems too simple, especially in contrast to the outcome of Alexandre’s anonymous communication with Véronique.
Véronique ultimately receives an audiocassette from Alexandre, recorded in the Saint Lazare train station, a location Véronique gleans after listening to the cassette and reasons is a meeting spot, noting the package’s postmark. The task appeals to Véronique’s inquisitive, childlike nature, and Kieslowski matches her curiosity with our own, letting us listen in when Véronique intently dons headphones; much like Weronika, Véronique is inherently playful, and her delight in discovering the tape’s hidden message clearly emits from her character. However, the flaw in such innocence is clear when Véronique does not receive a declaration of love from Alexandre, but instead a cold explanation that positions her as a random choice, selected primarily as research for his new novel. She leaves in tears, although a regretful Alexandre follows her, eventually professing feelings of love.
During the initial exchanges between Alexandre and Véronique, Véronique declared to her father that she was in love, although she was not sure with whom, and the realization that Alexandre’s feelings, let alone his intentions, oppose her own is heartbreaking. However, it isn’t solely the knowledge that her love may be unrequited, but also the unsettling discovery that intuition may be wrong, and that faith does not necessarily lead to the ends envisioned. Véronique’s sense of self seems to rest in the solidity of the world around her, and in her own hand in controlling that universe. This world is interrupted by Alexandre, both in breaking the idealism surrounding her feelings for him, and by drawing Véronique’s attention to a small, unnoticed detail in some contact sheets buried at the bottom of her purse, taken on a trip to Krakow; Véronique clearly sees the resemblance between herself and the woman in the photograph, a shot of Weronika staring at Véronique and her bus, and she weeps. What is so quietly devastating is her loss of innocence, not the kind induced through sexuality, as often lauded over in cinema and literature, but instead the bridge crossed between her formerly unshakable belief in what seemed secure and controllable in her small universe, and the cold realization that uncertainty and chance have played a far larger part, expanding Véronique’s world while making her feel all the smaller and unsteady in it.
While Véronique does embark on a relationship with Alexandre, she cannot forget Weronika, particularly when Alexandre takes it upon himself to weave their connection into his next marionette tale; gazing at her own puppet, Véronique is composed, but there is still sadness in her reaction. Leaving his flat, Véronique drives to her father’s home, and stops just short of the driveway. Opening the car window, she reaches out and touches the large tree outside her family home, her expression unknown to us, as she faces the tree. It’s a simple gesture that is simultaneously mystifying in the possibilities of interpretation, drawing us back to the search for the tangible within the indefinable. At the beginning of the film, Véronique played with a green leaf and its tiny veins, and she now touches a grown tree, perhaps the same the leaf fell from, and from this small history springs not only Véronique’s own past, an ever widening connection of individuality within the larger context of human experience.