LA DOUBLE VIE DE VERONIQUE
Director Krzysztof Kieslowski had previously explored the concept of multiple and parallel possibilities in life for the same person with his film, PRZYPADEK, (BLIND CHANCE) 1987, and with a brief subplot in the ninth episode of THE DECALOGUE (1990). With VERONIQUE, he probed deeper into the metaphysical probabilities in life, and postulated that each of us could, or might have a “doppelganger” out there, walking on this sphere just as we are, two almost identical parts of the same spiritual entity, and two separate but nearly identical souls. We can, or might be “aware” of that other presence, and we could share insights, instincts, fears, mishaps, dangers, and health issues.
From Wikipedia, “This film was a departure from Kieslowski’s earlier works. It was his first film produced partly outside Poland, and the parts taking place within Poland contain little reference to the social turmoil of the time; a pivotal scene is set in the midst of a political protest—yet it is barely acknowledged by the camera or the characters.”
But film critic Marek Haltof, like many in Poland, saw the film as a “political allegory”. He felt that the Weronika character did represent Poland, and Veronique represented France, or more generally “the West”. Both countries are portrayed as highly cultural, but while Veronique is “seemingly free to choose here own destiny.” Weronika’s early demise represented the sacrifice and tragedy of Poland under the Nazis during WWII, and its subsequent absorption into the Soviet control.
Kieslowski graduated from the Lodz Film Academy in 1969, and became a political and documentary filmmaker and script writer. He had been denied acceptance into film school twice, and he passed on the third try. He directed 40 films from 1966-1994; the first 30 were all award-winning documentaries. His first feature film success came with BLIND CHANCE (1987), followed by 4 more short documentary films before he made DEKALOG (1989-90). THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (1991) followed that and firmly entrenched him as a feature film director. From 1992-94 he became involved in the massive undertaking of writing, directing, producing, and editing his THREE COLOR TRILOGY, BLUE (1993), WHITE (1994), and RED (1994). It was documented in late 1993 he was editing BLUE, filming WHITE, and writing RED. He was an important member in Poland of the “cinema of moral anxiety”, and films were made illustrating Poland’s plight under Soviet rule and Communism. Director Andrzej Wajda was also a member of that group. When Kieslowski died in 1996, after complications with open-heart surgery, it was reported in HELLO magazine, in his obituary, that he also was battling complications from AIDS.
Kieslowski wrote once, “VERONIQUE is about sensibility, presentiments, and relationships that are difficult to name, that are irrational. Showing this on film is difficult; if I show too much, the mystery disappears. I can’t show too little, because nobody will understand anything. My search for the right balance between the obvious and the mysterious is the reason for all the various versions made in the cutting room.”
Slavoj Zizek, Philosopher and Psychoanalyst, wrote, “After finishing RED (1994), he retired to the countryside to spend his remaining days fishing and reading—in short to realize the fantasy of a quiet life, redeemed of the burden of Vocation. However in a tragic way, he lost on both counts. It was already too late, so that after choosing peace and retirement, he died. Or does his sudden death signal that the retirement into a quiet country life was a false issue, a fantasy screen effectively functioning as a metaphor for death—that for Kieslowski, the only was to survive was to continue filming, even if this were to mean constantly courting death? Did Kieslowski not, at least from our retroactive view, die at the proper moment? Although premature, his death, like Mozart, seemed to occur precisely when his opus was rounded up—the ultimate case of the miraculous coincidence around which his films turn. It is as if his fatal heart attack was a free act, a staged death, striking at the right time—just after he announced that he could no longer be making films.”
Kieslowski wrote, “If I have a goal, then it is to escape from this liberalism. I will never achieve it, in the same way that I will never manage to describe what is in my heart—although I keep on trying.”
Kieslowski said, “I can identify with what Bergman says about life, and about what he says about love. I identify more or less with his attitude towards the world—towards men and women and what we do in everyday life; forgetting about what is most important.”
The music in the film, haunting and repetitive, was composed by Zbigniew Preisner. It was attributed to a classical Dutch composer, Van den Budenmayer, and often it seems to be archaic and lilting. I read as a left-handed tribute to the genius of Preisner, someone in the Netherlands contacted Kieslowski and wanted to be paid for the rights to use Van den Budenmayer’s music; who is a wholly fictional personage. Every note was written by Preisner. Unlike most film composers who create their scores while watching an edited film, things move differently while working with the eccentric and talented Kieslowski. He believes in collaboration, from the inception of the project. So Preisner was brought in early on by Kieslowski and writing collaborator Krzystof Piesiewicz, and he works with them on the script as it is being written. He usually takes part in the editing of the film as well.
Kieslowski said, ”Preisner is an exceptional composer, in that he is interested in working on the film right from the beginning and not just seeing the finished version and then thinking about how to illustrate it with music. That’s the rule, right? You show the composer your film, and then he fills the gaps with music. But “he” can have a different approach. He can think about the music right from the start, about its dramatic function, about the way it should say something that is not there in the picture. You can describe something perhaps isn’t there on the actual screen but that, together with the music, starts to exist. It is interesting—drawing out something that does not exist in the film alone or in the music alone. Combining the two, a certain meaning, a certain value, something that also determines a certain atmosphere, suddenly begins to exist. The Americans shove music in from beginning to end.”
Kieslowski wrote, “We used some of Dante’s poetry as lyrics to the music in DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE. That was not my idea; it was Preisner’s idea. The words have nothing to do with the subject. They’re sung in old Italian, and even the Italians probably can’t understand them. But it was important for Preisner to know what the music he was writing was about, what the words really meant, because he had a translation. And what those words meant, what the text was about, probably inspired him to write the music. We thought a lot about the music. For Preisner, instrumentation is just as important as the melody. But the sound of the old Italian is also beautiful. The French bought 50,000 copies of the disc.”
After DEKALOG (1989-90), Kieslowski became a hot commodity, “one of the most important directors in Europe”, and Preisner became quickly one of leading music composers of his generation. He has written 52 film scores since 1981. His collaboration with Kieslowski started with BEZ KONCA (NO END) 1985. He was brought to notoriety after the release of THE DECALOGUE (1990). Then he wrote the score for EUROPA, EUROPA (1990), and then the score we are discussing for VERONIQUE (1991). He wrote the music for OLIVIER, OLIVIER (1992), and the enchanting score for THE SECRET GARDEN (1993), before working again with Kieslowski on WHITE (1993), BLUE (1994), and RED (1994).
After Kieslowski’s death in 1996, Preisner has gone on to write an opera to be performed in London, and features the Varsovia Symphony Orchestra. Besides Kieslowski then, Preisner has worked with directors like Louis Malle, Agniezka Holland, and Hector Babenco.
Kieslowski wrote, “VERONIQUE is a film about music, too, in principle—or about singing, let’s say. Everything was very carefully written down in the screenplay. Where the music would go, what the music would be like, what the concert would be like, the nature of it and so on. All of this was carefully described, but the fact that it was described didn’t really change anything, because a composer has to come along in the end and make something of what’s been written in a literary language.
How can you describe music? That it is beautiful, for example, or sublime? That it is memorable? That it is mysterious? You can write all this down, but the composer’s got to come along and find the notes. Then the musicians have to come along and play those notes. And all this, in the end, has to remind you of what was written down in literary language. Zbigniew Preisner simply did it wonderfully.”
The stunning and effective photography for VERONIQUE was done by long-time Kieslowski collaborator, cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, and it contributed greatly to not only the look but the feel of the film. He has helmed 57 films since 1967. With Kieslowski he worked on A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING (1988), DEKALOG (1990), THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (1991), and THE COLOR TRILOGY (1993-94). He went on to shoot THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING (1995), MEN WITH GUNS (1997), GATTACA (1997), PROOF OF LIFE (2000), BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), KING ARTHUR (2004), and HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007).
Marjorie Baumgarten of THE AUSTIN CHRONICLE wrote, “Then there appear those glorious shots, shots so articulate, audacious and arresting that they fill you with the joy of watching movies. The shot of Weronika seeing her reflection in a bus completing a 180 degree turn as her “double” is shooting a photograph of her is an image that is enduringly thrilling and stimulating.” This shot, coming out so flawlessly smooth, so organic put us into a disassociative state, out of balance and at the same time in balance; just for a moment, a glimpse into the mechanism of the universe.
Kieslowski said, “There is much more improvisation in Poland. The same goes for collaboration with the lighting cameraman. We discuss things in the evenings. Besides the basic ideas involved in making the film, or course, we discuss what we are going to do the following day. In Poland the lighting cameraman is not a technician hired out to do the photography, as he is here [in the West]. This results from a tradition that we created in Poland ourselves. It existed before, but I think that we, that is–our generation, raised the level of cooperation with the cameraman. He is a colleague who is present right from the very beginning of the script; in fact, from the initial idea. As soon as I have an idea, I go to the lighting cameraman. I tell him my idea and we start to discuss it. When I write the screenplay, I show him the first, second, and third versions, and together we work out how to make the film. So he does not just do the lighting and photography—he also has a certain influence on the staging. He makes comments about the actors, and he’s got the right to do so. I expect it of him. He has ideas as to how to resolve scenes, and that becomes our joint concern. Because such a system of work has developed, and we have Polish cinematographers brought up in that way, used to it, what’s more, liking it—we all get a great deal out of it. He becomes a co-author of the film, really does. Later on, of course, one always has to acknowledge the he is a co-author—not only because it makes him feel good and predisposes him well for the next film, but above all, because it’s true.”
As viewers we could not help but notice that Idziak used golden-green filters a lot for many of his shots. This was extremely apparent in the interior shots, but also the exterior ones too. Kieslowski said, “We used one fairly basic filter in VERONIQUE—a golden yellow one. Thanks to it, the world of the film was complete. It’s whole. You can recognize it. Filters give uniformity, and that is very important. In VERONIQUE the world appeared far more beautiful than it really is. Most people felt that the world of this film was portrayed with warmth; this warmth came from the actress, of course, and the staging, but also from the dominant color; namely this shade of gold.” Odd that he would explicate the filters in this manner because mostly the shots showed up with a dominant green cast; sometimes so much so, like in the Weronika concert scene, that it created green halos around the white hair of the conductor, and bathed the floor with greenish glow.
Jonathan Romney wrote, “Kieslowski and cinematographer Slawomir Idziak consistently use a yellow-green filter that fills the world with a seemingly benign, autumnal glow. Kieslowski claimed that this choice of color was a matter of visual contrast, determined by the dominant gray of the film’s locations, Krakow and Clermont-Ferrard. Yet overall the golden filtering transcends any obvious motivation.”
Slavoj Zizek, philosopher, wrote, “The city and its surroundings are shown in a specific way. The lighting cameraman used filters, which he made specifically—green filters so that the color in the film is specifically greenish. Green is supposed to be the color of spring, the color of hope, but if you put a green filter on the camera lens, the world becomes much crueler, duller, and emptier.” Another odd statement, for I feel those sentiments and conclusions would be more apropos if the cameraman had used gray, or natural light. I think the golden-green jells created an unreality, a kind of Alice through the looking glass feel to the scenes; and of course, objects that were already green became more vibrantly green, with golden tresses and hues mixed—like those touched up remastered photos that the Sierra Society is always making into calendars.
All this “green” talk has put me in a “green” frame of mind. Today we live in a world where we are directed to live green, to think green, to clean green, to eat green, even defecate greenily. It puts me in mind of a poem I wrote in the 60’s and then rewrote yesterday:
Song of Chlorus Chloropuscle II Since the dusky dawnprimeval,when great tree giantsgreened out the sun,and all the forestsbristling with the sharpnessof coniferand the softnessof deciduous mantle,stood dense, trunk to trunk,there have been sapian homo,who knew exactlywhere to findthe sky. The tiniest of children whowere wrenched into this planealready knowingabout Godand wood magic, arewatching with toddler’s eyes, aspeople prowlin parks puttingthings aliveand greeninto their pie holes. I am telling youthat huge winged birds,hairless rodents,wild and domestic,have memoriesof it, the tingleand the tasteof greenshoots, moss, leaves,grass and flower stems. Nature does not bleed.It’s essence is not red,it’s green;and so islife;all green,if you lookunblinkinglyas you chew a leaf,sucking the pulpout of itlike a vegenimalcannibal,like a combinewith ears; Somewhere neareven the skycan be green,with electric emeraldsunsets,slick, textured, scaly,like those cousin reptileswho journeyed farfrom the dankest depthsof a grayish-green sea,who tired ofthe swimmingand the darkness;who squirmed up proudon the land,struggling to standerect and claimingthe whole planetfor themselves,and many otherswho would soon follow. Green toois the life between life,and the lifeafter death,with hard data already extantas tarter on teeth,mold on sun-bleached bones,fungus on driftwood;and the beautyof rotas flesh and wood decomposeand make their wayhome;past the expresswayof magma,all the way tothe earth’s centerfold,that verdant steamingwomb. The girlwith the green eyes smiles from the green poster,instructing usto think green,to live green,to breathe green;and we do,or try to. Rebirth, children,that is our rewardwhen we partner upwith our loving planet. But in the meantimetry not to forgetas you are travelingup another yellow brick road,pounding your feet in Pumasuntil the blood gushesfrom beneath the toenails,that you certainly canand probably shouldleap off that infinite stretchof nowaythat goes nowherein no time,in real time,and liepeacefully in the greenfields of wildflowers and clover;heart full to burstingwith green fire;arms wide opento a sun of grass. Yes,just let the legionstramp by,with their silver armorclanking,and their lethal pilumheld high,for even the sweet ladybugon your chinknows thathell and warare not green. Glenn A. Buttkus February 2008
Educated in London and Geneva, and an emancipated resident of Paris at 18, Irene Jacob, a Swiss-born starlet was picked to play Weronika/Veronique. She kept reminding me of another French actress, Juliette Binoche. Kieslowski must have seen it too, using Binoche in his first film, BLUE (1993), in THE COLOR TRILOGY, and Jacob in the last film, RED (1994). Jacob was beautiful, in her early twenties, without it being distracting. Her eyes appeared to be lovely green, but considering how heavily Kieslowski filtered the movie, I would have to check to see what her actual eye color is. She was Swiss, and spoke provincial French, but she had to learn Polish for the Weronika scenes. She did so successfully, but in the editing stages Kieslowski had her voice dubbed by Polish actress Anna Gornostaj, because she had too much of an accent in Polish.
Jacob has appeared in 41 films since 1987. Kieslowski had seen her in a good part within AU REVOIR, LES INFANTS (1987), directed by Louis Malle. She had done 8 films before she had a chance to get the lead in VERONIQUE. She also was in THE SECRET GARDEN (1993), then was in Kieslowski’s final film, RED (1994). She went on to play Desdemona to Laurence Fishburne’s OTHELLO (1995). She was in INCOGNITO (1997), and U.S.MARSHALS (1998), with Tommy Lee Jones.
Originally Kieslowski wanted American actress Andie MacDowell to play Veronique. He liked her in SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989). She was very interested in the part, and accepted it. But the budget was too meager, and they could not meet her asking salary. The part went to Irene Jacob, and many of us are grateful that it did.
Peter Bradshaw of THE GUARDIAN wrote, “The sheer, heart-stopping beauty of Irene Jacob is what shines out firstly in this great movie. Maybe because she has not had the international career of her Kieslowski contemporary, Juliette Binoche, her face does not have that familiarity—and when we see it anew, rewatching this classic film, she re-emerges with added force and freshness.”
Hal Hinson of THE WASHINGTON POST wrote, “Only the sensual presence of the movie’s heroine, played by the smashingly expressive young French actress Irene Jacob, gives us a foothold on this slippery celluloid ice.”
Peter Cowie, film historian, wrote, “At the opening ceremony of the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, actress Irene Jacob was asked to pay tribute to Krzysztof Kieslowski, who had just died two months earlier. Her eyes brimming with tears, she stood brave and vulnerable on the huge stage, extraordinarily beautiful in a white dress, and spoke of her mentor with a wistful eloquence. They had made just two feature films together. Had he survived they might have made a dozen by now. But the great partnerships in film history rarely last that long. They burn with the ferocity and often blinding incandescence of a comet. Then each partner veers or drifts apart from the other—Lillian Gish from D.W. Griffith, Marlene Dietrich from Josef von Sternberg, Monica Vitti from Michelangelo
Irene Jacob served as muse to Kieslowski even as she was his Galatea. In THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (1991), she acts with the flawless candor born of total confidence in her director: her look transcends the words she utters. She confides in the camera and, by extension, in us, her audience. Kieslowski’s cinema is one of intimacy.
In Jacob, Kieslowski found an actress who could communicate her thoughts through tiny bits of business—the pensive twisting of a shoelace, a private laugh as she reads a fairy tale, the extra blink of an eye as she tells her father about a dream, or listens to a tape. During her first moments on screen, Jacob sings a chorale by Zbigniew Preisner of such celestial magic that the very rain drenching the other singers descends like some inebriating force, and so, cleansed, she clings to the closing note with exultation.
Some of the great Kunstlerpaar have been contemporaries—for example Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina, and Kurt Weill with Lotte Lenya. The relationship between Jacob and Kieslowski, by contrast, drew its strength from the difference in age between them—like Ingmar Bergman with Liv Ullman, or Claude Chabrol with Isabelle Huppert (or Roman Polanski with Nastassja Kinski, or Luc Besson and Milla Jovovich). Kieslowski proved to be a father figure for the young actress, and this motif was explored double in VERONIQUE.”
Jonathan Romney, author of THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, wrote, “Intensely focused on Jacob, VERONIQUE looks like one of those films designed expressly to make us fall in love with its star—an intention felt from the very first close-up of Weronika, in the rain, staying behind to sing alone in the rain as the choir disperses around her, her face is radiant with delight.” He wrote further, “As emotional beings, Weronika and Veronique are at once sexual and desexualized. Both women are sexually active, yet their truly intense ecstasies come in non-sexual situations; few cinematic images of female pleasure are as pronounced as Weronika’s face in the rain, or as that sweeping camera movement over Veronique when she gets up after reading on the bed. Such images make the two women appear less like adults than like presexual children; subject to the authority, influence, and manipulation of older men. Alexandre, the puppeteer, two beloved fathers, Weronika’s venerable conductor—and both women, like Jacob, literally come under the authority of the father figure who is Kieslowski himself; making both the actress and her twin characters disturbingly akin to the Veronique puppets seen at the end of the film”
Hal Hinson wrote, “The film itself is a kind of puppet show, with Kieslowski as marionette master—and in tying Jacob to his strings he’s made a brilliant choice and a major discovery for the movies. This is an actress with an uncanny openness and vulnerability to the camera. She is beautiful, but in a completely unconventional way, and she has such changeable features that our interest is never exhausted. What is remarkable about her performance is how quiet it is; as an actress, she seems to work almost off the decibel scale. And yet she is remarkably alive on the screen, remarkably present. She is a rare combination—a sexy yet soulful actress.”
Peter Cowie wrote further, “The particular distinction of Jacob’s performance for Kieslowski is that she is on the screen virtually all the time. The subjective texture means that she must react to the words of others even more than speaking herself. As she tells the puppeteer, “I always sense what I should do.” Trusting her instincts, Veronique will remain cinema’s quintessential romantic figure, and the apotheosis of Irene Jacob’s talent as an actress.”
Philip French of THE OBSERVER wrote, “The presence of a romantic puppeteer is part of movie tradition of fey, disturbed marionettes—think of LILI, Tony Hancock’s THE PUNCH AND JUDY MAN, or BEING JOHN MALKOVICH [or TEAM AMERICA].”
While writing the script for VERONIQUE, Kieslowski and Piesiewicz did not yet know what occupation to give the boyfriend. Then they remembered seeing a brilliant puppet show, put on my Jim Henson. They researched it and found out that the American puppeteer, Bruce Schwartz, had done the bit. They contacted him, and ironically he had just given up his marionette career from public lack of interest. Schwartz already had the puppets premade, the ballerina, the old lady, the butterfly, and he handmade all of the puppets himself. After he was hired, he constructed the two puppets of Irene Jacob.
Philippe Volter played Alexandre Fabbri, the marionette master. All the close ups of his hands working with the puppets were done with Bruce Schwartz. Volter found just the right balance for me of mystique, ardor, creativity, and passion. It was easy to see, and quite believable, considering the incredible circumstances of his courtship with Veronique, that she would fall for him. His character was essential to the semblance of plot, for it was he that first noticed the photograph of Weronika on the proof sheet that fell from Veronique’s huge purse.
Kieslowski said, “The male lead in VERONIQUE was to be played by the Italian director Nanni Moretti. I like him and his films very much. He is masculine, yet very delicate. He is not an actor, and only had played leading roles in his own films. But for me, strangely enough, he agreed very willingly. Then before shooting he became ill, and I replaced him with the French actor, Philippe Volter, whom I liked in Gerard Corblau’s THE MUSIC TEACHER.”
Kieslowski wrote, “I try not to tell the actors too much. To be honest, I try to give them one or two good sentences, no more, because I know that they simply listen to everything you say, especially in the initial stages of the filming, and if you tell them too much, they will quote you later on and you can’t get out of it. So I say as little as possible. Everything is written in the screenplay. When it comes to actors—I would rather listen to them. I love actors a lot. They are such strange people. They would do anything for me. It often happens to me that they bring their views, feelings, and their attitudes to the work. I make use of this; I simply take it. I love them for it. And if you love someone, you try and be close to them, and you want to see everything just as it is. Besides it pays dividends. They repay me in like manner. They are then prepared to give more than just their skill and glycerin.”
In the film, Weronika (Irene Jacob) lived in Poland, a young woman still residing at home with her father. She has a fabulous natural singing voice, and is discovered one day by a famous music teacher—but she also has a cardiac condition that she does not deal with. Disregarding her heart problems, she launched into strenuous voice training, and plunged headlong into a fledgling career—but during what would have been a triumphant singing debut, she collapsed and died mid-performance.
We then are introduced to Veronique (Irene Jacob) who lived in France. She was a music teacher, who seemed to be taking singing lessons. She had recently returned from a trip to Poland, and without realizing it, she and Weronika had glimpsed each other while in the Great Square at Krakow. Weronika had seen Veronique clearly, although she made little of it. Veronique had snapped a photograph of Weronika without recognition of her. There is a myth that if we ever meet our doppelganger, one of us will die. Krieslowski seemed to subscribe to this notion.
Slavoj Zizek wrote, “This episode of the near encounter in the Square in Krakow was rendered in a vertiginous circular shot reminiscent of the famous 360-degree shot from Hichcock’s VERTIGO. The camera’s circular movement, then, can be read as the signaling of the danger of the “end of the world”, like that standard scene from science-fiction films about alternative realities, in which the passage from one to another universe takes the shape of a terrifying primordial vortex threatening to swallow all consistent reality. So if the two women, Weronika and Veronique were actually to confront and recognize each other—reality would disintegrate, because such an encounter, of a person with her double, with her self in another time-space dimension, is precluded by the very fundamental structure of the universe.”
Moments after Weronika’s death, Veronique while making love suddenly felt a tremendous loss, an overwhelming sense of grief—somehow becoming aware that she was now “alone” in the world. She immediately contacted her singing teacher and cancelled her lessons, abandoned the notion of a singing career. This cross over of instinct or genetic knowledge was not explained—it is just presented.
Most of the film dealt with Veronique’s life in France. She fell in love with a dashing and enigmatic writer and puppeteer, who somehow seemed to “understand” the duality of her nature, and of her life. In a strange and magical way, Alexandre seduced her with a game of cleverness, requiring her to follow clues, and come to conclusion as to who he was, and later who she herself was. In the middle of the night Veronique received a mysterious anonymous phone call. She nearly hangs up, and then she hears a snatch of music, the music Weronika was singing when she died, and that she herself is teaching to her young music students at school. Somehow she is fascinated by this, and is connected to it. She also received several anonymous packages, one with just a shoe lace in it, another with a cassette of sounds, a collage of noise that she listens to repeatedly until she is able to do the detective work necessary to track down her admirer, her Svengali—at the train station, at Paris’s Gare Saint-Lazare, she finds the puppeteer Alexandre waiting for her. She has already figured out that seeing him perform at her school was beginning of a strong fascination she was nuturing; something she mentioned to her father. Alexandre tells her that the tape was part of an experiment, some research he was doing for a novel—was it truly psychologically plausible for a woman to follow such a trail of clues. Offended, Veronique bolted from the café, but he follows her, and soon they become lovers.
At some point later, after they have some sort of established relationship, he created two puppets, possibly representing this probability, this duality, Veronique fled from the relationship, fled from her full recognition of her special circumstance. It was if Weronika had ventured forth first on this firmament, like a fraternal twin, taking a breath mere minutes before the other. The choices she made for herself, however catastrophic, resulted somehow to serve as guidelines and considerations later for Veronique.
When VERONIQUE was shown in America, it included an alternate ending that Kieslowski had tacked on at the request of Harvey Weinstein of MIRAMAX. The original film closes with Veronique pausing in her car at the head of the driveway for her father’s house, rolling the car window down, and simply reaching out and placing her hand on a tree standing there, caressing the bark. It resonates with the sense of the naturalness her father represent as a beloved, and a woodworker, a return, a touching of hearth and heart. But remember Kieslowski, in the editing room, had constructed over a dozen alternate endings, and different cuts of the film. At one point he was going to put a different version of the film in all 20 French theaters where it opened. So the American ending had the father coming out of the house when he sensed she was there, and asking her to come in because it was cold outside. She turned off her car, and ran to his open arms for a long sustained hug. Like others, I disliked this version of ending. It was obvious overkill, unnecessary, redundant; nearly ridiculous.
Kieslowski said, “I imagine Veronique does not spend her life with Alexandre. At the end, you see her crying. She is crying when he suddenly reads her his book, and the way she looks at him is not in the least bit loving—because in effect, he has used her life. He has used what he knows about her for his own purposes. I think she is much wiser at the end of the film than at the beginning. Alexandre’s made her aware that something else exists, that the “other” Weronika did exist. He is the one that found the photograph. Veronique did not even notice it among the dozens of photographs she had. He is the one who noticed it, and perhaps he understood what she couldn’t understand herself. See, he understood, and then used it. And the moment he used it, she understood that he probably was not the man for whom she was waiting so desperately; because the moment this came out into the open, something she possessed, something that was so terribly intimate as long as it wasn’t disclosed, was automatically used—and when it was used, it stopped being hers; and when it stopped being hers, it was no longer mysterious. It was no longer personal. It had become a public secret.”
Slavoj Zisek, philosopher, wrote, “There is, however, a price to be paid for this retreat. When and why exactly, does Veronique return to her father in order to find a safe haven of calm? After her puppeteer lover stages for her the (unconscious) choice that structured her life, in the guise of the two marionettes. So what is Veronique retreating from when she abandons her lover? She perceives this staging as a domineering intrusion, while it is actually the very obverse; for it actually is the staging of her ultimate, unbearable FREEDOM. In other words, what is so traumatic for her in the puppeteer’s performance is not that she sees herself reduced to a puppet whose strings are pulled by the hidden hand of Destiny—but that she is confronted with the fundamental unconscious choice by means of which every one of us has to choose her or his existential project. Her escape from the puppeteer, back to the “safe haven”, under the wings of her father—is her escape from freedom.”
The theme of fathers and daughters was explored on screen, just as director and star explored it, on camera and off. Weronika’s father, played by Wladyslaw Kowalski, was an artist, a talented, yet reclusive man that nevertheless loved his talented young daughter. He was busy working on a painting of a Polish town or city, and those paying attention would have seen the real buildings appear in montage, other paintings, and passing imagery in train window glass. Weronika “felt” that she was not alone, and her father did not quite grasp the significance of this. The father was an intellectual, surrounded by music, his art, and his books. Veronique’s father, played by Claude Duneton, was more a natural man, a woodworker, furniture builder, and tinkerer. He too paid attention to and loved his teacher daughter, as she explained she was falling in love with a stranger; who turned out to be a writer and marionette master. The missing mothers were constants in both scenarios, Polish and French. The important naturalness and wholesomeness and close to nature temperament of Veronique’s father was essential to the semblance of a plot.
Kieslowski presented us several delicious overlapping and synchronicious symbols and objects that became the common warp and weave of the two lives in both countries—leaves, upside down imagery, landscapes, churches, colors, string, fathers, missing mothers, toys, and a weak heart among others; nothing overt yet still significant enough to reinforce our tingle of deju vu. There is a reoccurring character in both scenarios—a stern looking woman is a large hat; reminiscent of the angelic “observer” who appeared in most of the episodes of DECOLOGUE.
Kieslowski said, “I do not consciously work with symbols or metaphors. A bottle of milk is simply a bottle of milk; when it spills, it means milk has been spilled. Nothing more.”
Jonathan Romney wrote, “Kieslowski confessed that he aspired to those moments when a film escapes literalism. If VERONIQUE spurs us to search for meaning in a maze of fragmentary significance—it is perhaps because he made the film in such a spirit of pursuit, quite simply in the sense of teasing out narrative shape.”
The film’s opening montage at first is confusing, for it is a night shot of Krakow, and the sky and the earth is reversed, and we look at it upside down. Then we meet Weronika who is being held upside down by mother. Weronika has a toy, a transparent glass ball with plastic stars floating in it. When she peers into it, the stars from that opening scene reappear, and the image appears reversed. Much later on when Veronique empties the contents of her purse on the hotel bed for Alexandre, we see that she too has an identical glass toy ball with stars floating in it. Immediately, returning to the opening scene, we are introduced to the toddler Veronique, holding a delicate leaf, as her mother talks to her about nature and life. In both scenarios, the mothers are absent. This was there only appearance, as disembodied voices that might have been recalled later or introduced then abandoned by Kieslowski.
When the film shifts to France, to Veronique, she is shown making love just as the dirt is being tossed onto the casket of Weronika in Poland. She suddenly, mid-coitus, feels depressed and saddened in some free floating metaphysically challenging way. The boy friend dresses and leaves the distracted and depressed Veronique; never to return to the plot of movie. Later in the hotel room, after Veronique and Alexandre have become lovers, and she stares at the photograph that she has taken of Weronika, again the overwhelming realization that something significant has occurred spiritually, she feels the separation, the loss, the weight of that knowledge, and she begins to weep—but this time her lover does not retreat, he makes love to her again, and his love making transforms her gasps of sadness into groans of ecstacy; a temporal fix at best, but a lover’s earnest diversion. [By the way, what was up with that hotel room? Both Veronique and Alexandre have perfectly fine apartments, fitted with large comfortable beds that they could have chosen to create their new love life in. Perhaps it is more romantic, certainly more expensive, to start a love affair in a hotel room, on neutral ground, and see where it goes.]
The leaf that Veronique held as a child reappeared for Weronika when she had her first heart attack, as deep piles of dead leaves littered the ground and low walls. Later we find more deciduous symbols surrounding the small estate of Veronique’s father; allowing the natural symbol of growth, of life, to juxtapose with the symbol of death, and cyclic behavior of nature. Death strode unseen in this film as it does in most of our lives; unseen, unexpected, unheralded, ever-patient, and omnipresent.
Kieslowski lets certain metaphysical phenomenon occur without explication. When Weronika died, her spirit seemed to soar out over the audience, seen upside down, passing beneath her as she vacated her body and the building. Her spirit seemed present too at her own funeral, both in and out of the casket. When Veronique is napping in a chair in her apartment and a bright ball of light on her face awakens her. She opens her beautiful green eyes and sees that ball of brilliance bouncing all over the room. She goes to the window and immediately sees a young boy in the window across the lane, holding a mirror, and playing with the light. He goes inside and takes the mirror with him, yet when Veronique returns to the room, that brilliant ball of spectral light reappears, dancing and teasing as it darted about. She turned toward the camera and stared at “something” or “someone” above her head, above our head. Was it an image of Weronika, something amorphous yet friendly? Several times later Veronique fixated on something we cannot see.
We also had reflective reality versus perceived reality versus point of view for the viewer and the camera lens. Constantly both Weronika and Veronique’s faces were caught in reflection in mirrors, windows, and water. On the train to Krakow, as Weronika traveled to see her aunt, as she held her glass toy ball and looked at the landscape reversed, her face was constantly reflected in the window, peering back at her like a separate entity. By the way the buildings in the landscape were a repeat of the buildings Weronika’s father was painting earlier. In addition the scene described by Veronique later to her father, a scene in a dream, was there outside of the train window; a tall church steeple, red buildings, cobblestone streets. Also in France, there was a print or a painting of that same landscape near the slumbering Veronique. As Veronique looked out any of her apartment windows, or passed shop windows, her reflection like shadow of light taunted her, teased her and us.
There was a rampant repetitive use of the twin symbol. The two women were twins, somewhere between spiritually fraternal and identical; with dopplegangers maybe there is an Immaculate Conception, and Spirit or God is the father, and the earthly fathers were only fill-ins, genetic step-fathers, just a Joseph looking for the manger. Although it was not really stated, I think the two women were born in summer, and were probably Gemini’s; and that is why the young French Veronique held a green leaf in her baby’s hand. For both women their reflections became a presence, a twin of glass that once in a while was more, was the flesh and blood twin getting a metaphysical glimpse of one another. The two mothers were in absentia. The two loving fathers carried on solo. Alexandre created two puppets of Veronique, suggesting that one was in fact Weronika. Both women had the same type of identical glass ball toy. When they met in the Great Square in Krakow, midst the mêlée of the student demonstration, they both existed simultaneously in identical space, like the twins they were in the womb of the universe; and the lines of reality bent back on themselves for a tiny moment, as one looked, and one saw, while the other didn’t. Even when Weronika had her singing debut, she had to share the stage with another singer, performing for a time a duet. The room number where Weronika’s boyfriend, Anton, was staying, after he followed her to Krakow, was identical to the room number in the hotel used by Veronique and Alexandre for their love tryst. The weak hearts were twin burdens, twin receptacles for love and death.
Peter Bradshaw of THE GUARDIAN wrote, “The trope of double-identity becomes a brilliant meditation on choices and alternative lives, on the presence of death which forces these choices on us, and on the terrible demands which art can make—if we choose to let it. Veronique’s identity, her very existence, became vivid and deeply felt because the fable or mirage of its duality has allowed it to be questioned and examined. A single life should be sufficiently phenomenal; perhaps we would all fully appreciate the central astonishing fact of our existence only if a cosmic twin were to be revealed before us, as if projected from the surface of a divine mirror. But Kieslowski suggests that the appearance of an uncanny double would be the occasion not of shock or horror, but ineffable sadness, a proof that we are not unique and not immortal.”
There was the repeated use of string or shoe laces. Weronika played with the string that bound her music while she auditioned, and she consistently had trouble keeping her shoes lace up, fussing with and tying them a lot. When Veronique received the phone call late at night, and we discover later it was from Alexandre, a bit of the music from Preisner, disguised as Van den Badenmayer, was played, and later when the first mysterious package arrived; just a single shoelace—how could the puppeteer, still new to understanding the situation, understand, know, and manipulate such things? This was artistic license for Kieslowski; again falling into the dominion of the unexplained, even the inexplicable. After we see Veronique carrying her medical strip showing her heart rhythm, and while studying it and playing with the shoe lace simultaneously, suddenly she snapped the lace straight; the symbol for flat line, death laughing and reasserting itself in the scenario.
Jonathan Romney wrote, “One of the film’s most compelling aspects is its explicit self-reflexivity, of which the marionettes are the most extreme, most arch manifestation. The two women at different points twist threads around their fingers: Veronique stretches one over a printout of her EKG result, as if tracing an equivalence between her and Weronika’s life lines. Alexandre has also written a story about a thread, and reels Veronique in on a thread of intrigue.”
Roger Ebert of the CHICAGO SUN TIMES wrote, “Kieslowski is not interested in the answers to such questions, because they would be meaningless speculations. But the possibility of such connections between lives is infinitely interesting. To think about them is to touch the mystery of consciousness. The parts do not quite fit, and anyway this is not a puzzle to be assembled. It is a romance about those moments we all have when we think we see ourselves at a distance. Is there, we wonder, more than one of me? Why haven’t I ever seen a portrait in a gallery that looks exactly like my self—or anyone else I know? How would I feel if I did? By the way when I do think I see my self at a distance, I never hurry to catch up. What if I were right? What would we say to each other?
Marjorie Baumgarten wrote further, “This film achieves a rare grace; it tells a story that could only exist in the form of a movie; or perhaps a piece of poetry. The story is told not so much in customary narrative structures, but in glimpses, hints, and intimations. It has a way of taking the solid and making it chimerical. This movie manifests a rare sense of mortality with characters aware of their corporeal immediacy and their permanent ephemerality. It is as though all of us are but flesh and blood, specks of dust on the celluloid of life. Make your smudges while ye may.”
Ken DuBois of REEL.COM wrote, “Just before he began work on his stunning film trilogy, BLUE, RED, and WHITE, Polish writer/director Krzysztof Kieslowski made a film that could easily have been part of the same series, and probably should have been called YELLOW [or perhaps GREEN], but was titled THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE instead. Like the three “Color” films, VERONIQUE is a meditation on the interconnectedness of people, told in poetic style with a visual language that repeats itself with the comforting cadence of a nursery rhyme. It is a film experience, in other words, in which the sensuous nature of the medium takes over, and the plot matters less and less as the film goes on.”
Hal Hinson of THE WASHINGTON POST wrote, “VERONIQUE has a fragile, opiated atmosphere that hovers somewhere between eroticism and melancholy. It is a hushed, moody puzzle of a film with the haunted unresolved air of a ghost story by Henry James, or one of the Borges’ poetic labyrinths. You feel as if you are only half-seeing it, as you might see the image of a solar eclipse in smoked glass, or if your sense of time has been disrupted and the whole thing has flashed before your eyes in the instant between heartbeats.
Kieslowski never really brings his story to any resolution, and that is as it should be. The film is a mesmerizing poetic work composed in an eerie minor key. Its effect on the viewer is subtle but very real. The film takes us completely into its world, and in so doing, it leaves us with the impression that our own world, once we return to it, is far richer and portentous than we had imagined.”
Philip French wrote, “VERONIQUE is the movie that marked Kieslowski’s transition from his realistic, political movies to a mystically patterned self-consciously poetic cinema.”
Peter Bradshaw wrote further, “There is a daring as well as simplicity in Kieslowski’s conceit, and it will continue to baffle as many as it intrigues; every time I see it, I confess to wondering if Kieslowski quite worked out or worked through all the implications of his story. Part of what wrong foots the audience is the asymmetry resulting from Weronika’s departure from the story relatively early on, and another part might be a sense that having renounced her vocation (interest in singing), Veronique’s life does not have the romanticism of Weronika’s death. But the elusiveness of the film is precisely the point; it is beautiful and mysterious as a poem and its formal elegance and conviction are unarguable. What makes it a must-see, however, is the generous, unselfconscious passion of Jacob’s performance as the young women—two young women in love.”
Jonathan Romney wrote further, “History may have sidelined THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE, but that is not to say the film has not lasted. In its teasing, fragmentary nature, it well may outlast the THREE COLORS TRIOLOGY, with its somber attempt at a definitive encapsulation of the human predicament at the end of the European 20th Century. VERONIQUE retains the kind of mystery that subsists when the search for meaning and shape is pursued with the seriousness and pleasure of game playing. It is the sense of pervasive “trompe l’oell”, of the conjurer’s—rather than the puppeteer’s—art, that makes VERONIQUE endure as a spellbinding experience, as well as a perplexing one.”
Kieslowski’s universe was both Gnostic and existential, natural and surrealistic, mundane and nearly surreal at times—but there is no doubt that he led the way for many other film directors to explore to notions and philosophies he created. Many of us presently are less impressed with him than we should be, for we are inundated with CGI games that effortlessly offer us multiple choices for specific outcomes. We make one choice and our character is killed. We simply rewind, back up and start over, making another choice and hoping to emerge victorious, the master of our fantasy scenario. In the 1980’s however this was a “new” twist, a new concept—the role of both chance and parallel histories.
Kieslowski wrote, “I think that if you go to the cinema you want to give in to your emotions. But I am not saying that everybody has to like VERONIQUE. On the contrary I think it is a film for a very limited group of people. I don’t mean an age group, or a social group—but a group of people who are sensitive to the sort of emotions shown in the film. And such people can be found among the intelligentsia, among workers, among the unemployed, among students, and among old age pensioners. I do not think it is a film for the elite, by any means—unless we call sensitive people elite.”
THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (1991) took Cannes and the world by storm in 1991—despite its nonsensical plot premise and unorthodox structure, liberally mixing non-linear and parallel storylines with metaphysical postulates. I feel that it is a classic, a barn burner, a trend setter, and it is not to be missed.
Glenn A. Buttkus 2008