Dir: Krzysztof Kieslowski (1991)
with Irene Jacob
It’s the music that moves me first. Always with Kieslowski’s films, it’s the music. Always composed by Zbigniew Preisner, and often in the guise of his alter ego, Van Den Budemeyer who indeed makes an appearance here – possibly the director’s way of acknowledging the importance of Preisner’s scores in his movies, that they are like characters in themselves.
The Double Life of Veronique, I think I’m right in saying, was the film that made Kieslowski’s name in the West, as it used to be called, when anything past Berlin was considered “East”. The film was released in 1991 to massive acclaim and a bunch of prizes at Cannes, just a couple of years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a year before the unification of Europe in Maastricht. There’s an east/west theme going on in the film, which I hadn’t previously considered, but which seems obvious now.
The Double Life… is the story of two Veronicas – well, one Veronique, French, and one Weronika, Polish – who are twins, of a sort. While they may look identical, they are unrelated – they have no family relationship that we know of, but there are many correspondences that unite the two. Both have been brought up by their fathers. Both are musicially talented. Both are generous and loving, and a bit lost. These connections seem to be mostly spiritual or psychic, some circumstantial, but there is also a crucial physical connection – of the heart, no less. Both Veronicas suffer from a heart condition, indeed the Polish Weronika dies of hers early in the film. French Veronique is given a kind of intuitive/ telekinetic insight through the experiences of her spiritual twin that allows her to avoid the same fate as her Polish double. She quits singing. Quits smoking. Chucks the needy lover. And, vitally, she gets her heart checked out at the hospital, meaning she gets to live.
The what-if double-life story is fantastic. It feels almost like one of the seven original stories you hear writers and dramaturgs talking about. It’s not the first time Kieslowski used the ‘double life’ theme – Blind Chance from 1982 engages similar themes, and elements of both films were given a slick make-over several years later in the hit rom-dram Sliding Doors.
As you’d expect, there’s a lot going on, much of it at a symbolic level. The Double Life of Veronique is rich in visual metaphors, reflections, repetitions, inversions, prisms, cracks in the glass. The camera sometimes occupies impossible subjective points of view – for example, by taking you over the heads of the audience when Weronka dies on stage, her soul obviously leaving the building; or looking up from the bottom of the grave as her bereaved family throw earth down on to her coffin. Sound design plays a huge part, too, and not just in Preisner’s beautiful and affecting score. A key sequence that leads Veronique to her suitor is a sonic detective story through the sound world around Gare St. Lazare. The moment when she discovers the photo of her Polish double, by contrast, is delivered in austere, pained silence.
It’s been years since I watched The Double Life of Veronique. I don’t quite know what I’m expecting when I watch the film back again. I don’t really remember watching it for a first time, don’t really remember when that might have been. Before I lived in Poland? 1993, maybe? I remember a VHS tape with the title pencilled along the face of the cassette, a recording from the good old days of Channel Four, when you could rely on quality films, usually late – but not graveyard shift late – like at 11pm, several times a week.
I love the reflexivity of the storytelling, the way that the marionette artist tells Veronique a version of her own story back to her. I love the games Kieslowski plays with sound and image, all the stuff I’ve listed above. And I love the very last beat of the film. Veronique’s father, pensive at his workbench, waiting for his daughter to come and ask him some difficult questions he’s been shirking the whole of her life. Was that actually her twin in Krakow?
There’s a lot to love, too, about Irene Jacob’s performance. Yes, I fancied her. I think, like every guy at the time, I always assumed I’d meet and fall in love with someone like Irene Jacob. It’s a natural performance, rather than a technical one – much as the musical director describes Weronika’s singing in the Polish scenes. She’s not had the shit trained out of her, let’s say that. She draws you in, makes you want to know too the mystery that she’s trying to solve within herself. It’s a tender and naive performance, which is exactly perfect for this role, which is about a uniquely affected young woman learning about herself. In portraying this, Jacob is note-perfect.
After watching, what am I left with? Disbelief that this film is 25 years old? Partly. That’s a lot of water under the bridge and it makes me pine for those late nights staying up watching weird films on Channel Four, hoping you’d find a good one. You felt that you were discovering something that was just for you, rather than something packaged and sold to you via some search engine algorithm, or because of what you already “liked”. But I don’t suppose it matters how you find stuff, in the end, as long as you’re looking and keep open mind.
Kieslowski was, probably still is, my favourite film maker. I love him for the way that he – and his excellent cast – can bring out difficult to access emotions. I love how he can layer meaning and metaphor, weave stories within stories, without ever being too clever or too obscure. I love the stories he tells.
Mostly, watching The Double Life of Veronique makes me want to live in that world again. It makes me want to revisit Dekalog and The Three Colours Trilogy. It makes me want to find my Veronica.