Kieslowski – Art and Messages – Section 5. “The Double Life of Veronique” – What is it “About”? This Blogger’s Musings

First of all I have to say that until I decided to write this blog and contribute it to the TFC web site I never, ever, spent anytime on the question “what is the film Veronique about?” The first time I saw this movie I absolutely loved it simply because it moved me emotionally. How did it move me emotionally? Why did it move me emotionally? Those questions did not concern me either. Why should I care? It is a beautiful movie, with superb cinematography, fantastic music, and acting, by Irene Jacob, that is on a level far elevated above all but a few of the greatest performances.

If at that time someone would have asked me what it was about, I would have said it is a visual and musical poem about young women growing up. Period. Who wants to try to explain beauty? Not me, I like films, I’m not metaphysics philosopher.

To end this line of thought, I watched Veronique several more times, was moved emotionally each time, and still did not feel the need to try to interpret what it was “about.”

But OK, the TFC saw the film because I wrote The Double Life of Veronique on a piece of paper that happened, about a year later, to be picked out of a hat by the Producers committee. That meant I had to lead the discussion, and after doing the research for that I figured I might as well write the blog. And with all that effort, I had put myself in the position of being able to, and therefore having to, try to say what I thought it was about.

But you don’t have to read any further. Feel free to stop now. If The Double Life of Veronique moved you, touched you, then I think you are lucky. Why go any further and try to take it apart and determine it’s meaning? Stop here, log off the web site, pop it in the DVD player, and partake.

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OK, so you decided to read on. So here goes.

I believe that one can best interpret The Double Life of Veronique – that is say what it is about – only in the context of Kieslowski’s other films, particularly his major works of fiction and with an understanding of his decision to change from documentaries to fictional films. Certainly the film can stand alone as a work of art, but one cannot separate it entirely from other works of art by the same director. An analogy: Monet’s “Water Lilies” stands by itself as a remarkable work of art, but it is best understood in the context of his other paintings and those of the school of impressionism. In a similar way, Veronique, can be best understood in the context of Kieslowski’s other great films, among them: Blind Chance, The Decalogue, and the Three Colors trilogy.

Annette Insdorf’s book on Kieslowski is titled “Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski” (1). While I was not overwhelmed by the book’s analysis of his works I believe the title does a superb job of capturing the general theme of his most important films. In Blind Chance, in most if not all episodes of The Decalogue, in Veronique, and in Blue, White and Red the lead characters lives are significantly and sometimes severely impacted by chance external events, by their choices as to how they react to those events, and especially by their relationships with others. In these films, the chance events, the choices and the relationships combine to give the lead characters a “second chance” at life, to lead a double-life of sorts as Insdorf says. In fact, in most of these films, chances, choices, and relationships continue to occur giving them yet more opportunities for further “second” lives.

Chance, choice, and relationships are all important, but of these three by far the strongest life-changing drivers are the relationships.

A few examples will make this clearer:
• In Blind Chance Witek’s, father dies and his last words were that Witek is “under no obligations.” (2) Whatever that meant, Witek immediately chooses to quit medical school and runs to catch a train. Whether he catches the train or not is determined by how hard he bumps a man drinking a beer on the platform, on how crowded the platform is, and on whom he “runs into” on the platform. As a result of making or missing the train he ends up associating with different people and therefore ends up leading very different “second” lives (literally three lives in this case.) Note the pattern, a critical relationship in changed, he makes a choice, then chance or divine intervention determines what happens on the platform and thus who he associates with next. Based on the relationships he develops after he makes/misses the train, he makes choices that determine the outcomes of his three lives.
• In Decalogue 2, a woman must choose whether or not to have an abortion. She makes her choice based on her relationships with her husband, her lover, and her doctor. And that choice, quite literally a life and death choice, is in turn determined by forces (chance or divine intervention?) beyond her control.
• In Decalogue 6, developed more fully as A Short Story About Love, chance places two people in apartments directly across a high-rise courtyard. A woman chooses not to pull the blinds shut in her apartment, and a young man chooses to peep into her life. The relationship that develops gives them both double (or multiple) lives and second (or more) chances.
• In Blue, Julie’s husband and daughter die (due to chance or intervention? – and if intervention is it divine or diabolic?) This crushing event causes her to re-evaluate all her relationships and to choose a second life. Yet a chance sighting of a television news show, forces her to re-evaluate her re-evaluation and to make yet another new choice for a third kind of life. The movie ends with a mysterious collage that wraps all her key relationships together.
• In White, Karol’s rejection by his wife is followed by a serendipitous meeting in the subway that gives him a chance for a second life in a Poland – which itself is just entering a new life of capitalism. Karol’s financial success gives him new choices with regard to his former spouse. He makes one choice, and then another and then another. Second chances in abundance.
• In Red, a young Swiss student/model (played again by Irene Jacob in a performance on the same elevated plane as in Veronique) accidentally injures a dog that has run away from home. She makes the choice to care for the dog and as a result she meets a cynical old judge. Their developing relationship affects them both in profound ways.
• Finally, at the end of Red, Kieslowski presents us with a visual metaphor for divine intervention that ties together the lives of the main characters from all of the Three Colors films.

Consider this timeline. Blind Chance was released in 1987; The Decalogue was shown on television as a series in Poland in 1989-90, and then in quick succession came The Double Life of Veronique in 1991 and the Three Colors trilogy, Blue in 1993, and White and Red in 1994. So The Double Life of Veronique occurs in the middle of a long string of movies that share a common theme.

What makes Veronique stand out among them is not its theme but that in it Kieslowski expresses this theme in the most poetic and metaphysical way of any his movies. Dramatic plot elements drive the other movies in this series. It takes the death of her husband and daughter to give Julie her “second chance” in Blue. It takes a cruel divorce and a new economic order in his home country to give a Karol a second chance in White. There is a peeping Tom who intervenes in A Short Story about Love (Decalogue VI). And Valentine encounters a judge who is committing illegal acts in Red. But in Veronique the causal agents are subtle and indirect. Veronique feels a vague sense of loss and gives up her artistic career without even understanding the source of the loss or her reason for quitting. She falls in love but doesn’t know with whom. And the interventions take metaphysical or magical forms – a Tinkerbelle-like golden light leads Veronique to the string on her music folder and another string snaps taut like an electrocardiograph indicating death.

In Veronique the role of chance (Weronika’s unexpected opportunity audition for the singing role) and the role of choice (Veronique dropping her musical career) are very clear. By contrast, because it is so easy to focus on Weronika/Veronique in this film, one can easily miss the significance of some key relationships. We naturally focus on Weronika/Veronique because they look alike (played by the same actress), dress alike, share a common heart condition, have similar careers, see each other once, realize they are not alone, etc. Their relationship is certainly important, but there are other relationships that these young women have that are perhaps equally important to the theme of the film.

That Alexandre Fabbri has an important relationship with Veronique is obvious. But he also has a mysterious relationship with Weronika. How does he happen to possess a tape of her singing at the moment she dies?

Both Weronika/Veronique have very close relationships with their fathers. The opening sequences of the movie show both as toddlers being tenderly instructed by their mothers, and we soon learn that both mothers died young, meaning that W/V were both raised by their fathers. They demonstrate emotional closeness by the subjects they talk about, in particular their sharing the feeling that they are not alone. They are also physically affectionate with their fathers, a bit of a surprise given their ages. As Weronika lies partially clothed in bed her father touches her cheek and she caresses his hand while they talk about what she wants from life. Later we see Veronique in her father’s home. He comes from the shower wrapped in a towel and asks her what she thinks about a new perfume he has developed. She does not dab it on her wrist but playfully puts a drop on his nose from whence she samples it. During this scene we are treated multiple shots of a radiant Irene Jacob looking lovingly and adoringly at him. I don’t mean to imply anything beyond a great mutual affection between father and daughter in these scenes, after all both fathers raised their only child by themselves after the mothers died while the children were young.

But after Kieslowski has established similar very close relationships between father and daughter he takes those relationships in very different directions. Soon after we meet Weronika she leaves home for Krakow and her career. Evidently she never returns home and the next time we see her father is he is throwing dirt onto her coffin. It is easy to say that Weronika’s critical choice is for her career, but before that she decided to leave home, that decision leads to her choice of career, and that choice that leads to her death. In a very real way, leaving her father and her home was her most fundamental choice. For Weronika the film is bookended by the Christmas sky opening above her and the earth closing over her.

By contrast we see Veronique returning home frequently and, from their discussions we see how she and her father maintain their close and affectionate relationship. The “end” of the film for Weronika is death, but the end for Veronique is to return home to her father’s protective embrace. For Veronique the film is bookended by family. At the start her mother teaches her about a leaf, at the end she touches a tree outside her father’s house. In fact one of the most metaphysical events in the film in a pretty metaphysical film, occurs at the end. After leaving Alexandre, Veronique drives home and stops her car near an outbuilding away from her father’s house. He is woodworking, using a machine that moves at 27,000 rpm and makes quite a lot of noise. He cannot possibly hear her, yet he is aware she is there and stops his work. In the French version, as Veronique rolls down the window and feels the bark on a tree we hear Weronika singing again. At the same time Veronique’s father stands taller, and the look on both their faces indicate awareness of something significant. When we first were introduced to Veronique she felt she had lost something but did not know what it was. This ending makes us feel that both she and her father now realize she has found it.

What do they both see? What is the significance? I think this is where we get to fill in our own favorite ending to the fairy tale. (3) Has Alexandre with his twin puppets shown Veronique that she has free will? Has she come home to tell her father that Alexandre is her love? Does the look on their faces indicate that both of them know she has grown past their father/child relationship and from now on she will face the world as an adult making her own choices? Or has she run away from Alexandre and come back to her father because she is repelled by Alexandre’s use of her to enhance his books? Has she chosen the embrace of a parent over the exercise of free will? (4) Is it necessary for us to choose between these two alternatives?

I think not, because the details of the choice are not what is important. Read with me what Kieslowski says The Double Life of Veronique is about:

“I think one of the most important things in life…that gets you through the day is responsibility. You have to broaden that term a bit. Everyone’s responsible for himself and for his life. That’s understandable. We are responsible for our deeds. We pay for what we’ve done wrong. We feel satisfaction when we do something right. This kind of responsibility in the personal sphere is quite clear. You’re conscious of it.

“But I think there’s also another kind of responsibility, the existence of which we don’t understand. It’s responsibility for other people, for people we meet or perhaps don’t meet. I firmly believe that the way we live and the things we do influence people around us whether we know them or not.

“The main theme of this film is ‘live more carefully” because you don’t know what the consequences of your actions may be. You don’t know what they will do to people whom you know or don’t know. You don’t know how your actions may influence them.

“Live carefully, because there are people all around you whose lives and well-being depend on your actions.

“This concerns all of us, because these paths – these people and their destinies – cross each other all the time, whether we’re aware of it or not.

“That is what responsibility means to me – to live carefully and attentively. We should observe the people around us, and most of all ourselves.” (5)

Consider the characters in The Double Life of Veronique. Who among them acted with responsibility? Who was irresponsible? Who lived carefully? Who observed others and most of all who was aware of themselves and their influences on others?

Did Weronika’s father’s love for her blind him to her immaturity, her need for his guidance, and her illness? Did he abrogate responsibility by letting her leave home without more care? Was Weronika sufficiently aware of herself and those around her? Certainly her boyfriend Antec, whom she forgot so easily, would not attest to her attentiveness. Why, as he is making love to her, is she looking at her own picture? And why did she ignore the very clear symptoms of her own soon to be fatal illness? On the other hand, Weronika is very aware of Veronique on the tourist bus, she sees and she feels a very significant connection.

How responsible is Veronique? She too dismisses her (first) lover on the whim of a strange feeling and he never appears again. Is she in love with Alexandre or with the idea of being in love in such a mysterious way? Is she running from him or leading him on? Do we see the real Veronique when she agrees to give false testimony in court? Is there a pattern of Veronique being self-absorbed and not aware of others? After all she missed seeing, let alone recognizing, Weronika from the bus, and didn’t even look at the pictures she took event though they had been in her purse all the time.

Is Veronique’s father the model of responsibility? Certainly he seems both self-aware and aware of Veronique’s feelings. He is always there for her, and very attentive. In the end he is attentive when it is not even physically possible to be so.

Perhaps you are disappointed or irritated that I am asking all these questions and not answering any of them. But why should it be important to answer them about Weronika, Veronique, their fathers, their lovers, or Alexandre? Answers about these fictional characters aren’t important to Kieslowski. Answers about real life are what count.

We can understand this better when we listen to him tell us why he stopped making documentaries and started filming fiction.

“I was making documentaries because I loved that genre. I still love it, but I don’t make them anymore because that genre has ceased to exist. Because you take your camera and go into places where you have no right to go. You go into these areas of human intimacy, of relationships that are the way they are because there are no witnesses.

“As the years passed, I began to see that that was a trap with no way out. You can’t take the camera into people’s bedrooms while they are making love. Because to make love they have to be alone, without the camera present. I realized how many areas of life a documentary can’t cover.

“And then I started to move from social and political issues, which a documentary can easily deal with, to stories about interactions between people. And lately it seems to me that I make films about people’s innermost thoughts and emotions, about what they don’t show to anyone. To film that, I need an actor, glycerin tears and a fake death. Everything has to be fake to look real on-screen. Thanks to all these fake things I can breathe life into my story.

It’s all more interesting in real life, but you should never film those things in real life. That’s why I don’t make documentaries anymore.” (5)

Kieslowski was interested in “people’s innermost thoughts and emotions, about what they don’t show to anyone.” I believe he started making fictional films to encourage people at least to show those things to themselves.

So in Veronique we don’t need answers to the questions I have posed about the characters he has so creatively brought to life. They are just fictional characters; they aren’t real. They are actors who cry “glycerin tears” and die “fake deaths.” Kieslowski doesn’t need to answer questions regarding the responsibility of his fictional characters, and it isn’t up to reviewers or bloggers either. Instead he presents questions about his characters in order to enable us to ask the same questions about ourselves. When Kieslowski said Veronique is about responsibility, I think he meant not how responsible his fictional characters were on the screen, but how responsible we are in our inner lives.

So if you are moved by the film in spite of its being so mysterious and metaphysical perhaps it is because, in its depiction of chance, choice and relationships, it is realistic to you at an emotional level.

We see people moving through lives they don’t fully comprehend, either about themselves or their effect on others. And we recognize while watching the film that we feel the same way about ourselves sometimes. In The Double Life of Veronique Kieslowski turns his fictional camera back on his audience and asks us to make a documentary about ourselves, about how responsible we are. He makes it safe for us to do this because for us his real camera isn’t present. He says he had to do fiction because he couldn’t film real people in intimate situations. Instead, he filmed fictional people in order to enable us to make our own documentaries. It’s like watching a marionette show and feeling yourself come alive.

Clink on this link to return to the Contents.  

References:

(1) Insdorf, Annette (1999). “Double Lives, Second Chances. The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski.” Hyperion, New York.

(2) Vorndam, Jeff, (2002) Review of Blind Chance. http://www.aboutfilm.com/movies/b/blindchance.htm accessed 13 March, 2008

(3) James, Caryn (1991) “Film View; ‘Veronique: In Poetry Lies Its Key”, in The New York Times, December 8.

(4) Slavoj Zizek, (2006) “The Forced Choice of Freedom,” essay from The Double Life of Veronique Criterion Collection DVD booklet, pp. 16-25.

(5) Kieslowski Dialog (1991), a film interview with Kieslowski that includes shots of the filming of The Double Life of Veronique. Criterion Collection: The Double Life of Veronique. Disc two – The Supplements released 2006.

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5 Responses to Kieslowski – Art and Messages – Section 5. “The Double Life of Veronique” – What is it “About”? This Blogger’s Musings

  1. “I’m going to make a film with no meaning, Krzysztof.”

    “No meaning? I don’t quite follow, Krzysztof?”

    “Just bear with me and watch what happens. Human nature. Works every time.”

    “Have you got an idea then?”

    “Oh, I have, sure. Remember that girl from Decalogue 9?”

    “With the heart problem? Are we going back to her?”

    “Not exactly. But I know the girl who can play the part.”

    “The music teacher girl in that French film? She knows about this?”

    “She’s not going to ever know about it; the reaction will shock her.”

    “Are you going to do the room numbers again, Krzysztof?”

    “Maybe. I just love it when the critics wave their hands around.”

    “Calm down Krzysztof. You are not as young as you used to be.”

    “I’ll show them what four years at that PWSFT did for me.”

    “What’s that in your hand, Krzysztof?”

    “Nothing. Some scribblings about three things that mean little today.”

    “Finish one at a time, Krzysztof, surely.”

    “You’re never going to understand Piesiewisc, I’m sorry.”

    “I’m trying to understand.”

    “Therein lies your problem. You’re using your mind again.”

    “Where are you going, Krzysztof? Are you coming back?”

    “Just to the kiosk to get some ciggies. Wait for me…”

    “What do you want me to do, Krzysztof?”

    “Ring Slav. Get him round with that old bag of Krasnogorsk gear of his but this time with a K2 gel taped on the front. OK?”

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    “None of the films is about me. Not a single one. None. I have my life and I’ll simply never tell anyone what part of me is in my films. I won’t ever tell anyone about that, because I don’t consider that to be anyone else’s business but mine. Nobody will guess where and how and in what way I fill them with my own pains. And that’s an intimate aspect of my work that I keep to myself… I won’t even tell my wife. Ever.”

    Nice post Peter. I just wish there were more posts like yours out there. As you have pointed out by means of your essay, we are short today of one good story-teller. Even if he distanced himself from the ‘cinema of moral anxiety’, Kieslowski remained true to his feelings of individual responsibility as was well-portrayed in Veronique.

  2. David Gilmour says:

    Peter,
    Let’s have a ciggie when we reach the center. This is quite an amazing maze of commentaries on Double Life of Veronique, and your searching for the aboutness is quite intriguing. I often wonder if we can trust what movie makers say about their motives. They search for meanings as they’re filming as any storyteller in the writing. Many of Kieslowski’s characters seem to search, the camera seems to pry, following subjects seeking out objects or other subjects; likewise, the pace is tentative, searching, probing, as one might do if one were in a strange place, a mysterious place like a maze, half intruding into, half seeking escape from. The lyrical, haunting, otherwordly music Peisner composed helps to emphasize the half-being longing for the other matching half.

    Kieslowski’s doubts about documentaries, about being intrusive are interesting in light of the secret life people lived in Poland — cautious, scared, wondering if the secret police would find them out. A documentray filmmaker might see the similarity and retreat from being caught out, imitating one of the state’s vices. I remember one of the interviews with him speaking about the censorship of artists. In producing poetic fictions one can always say,”Oh, that — it’s artistic fun, nothing really. I just made it up. It’s just imagination, it’s pretense.” In making films that are mystical, vague and ambiguous, whether about relationships, responsibility, or happenings, without a clear, declarative statement about life or lives lived, one can say, “I’m an artist, I’m poetic in what I do. Make of it what you wish.” I can imagine one who has been brought up under repressive governments making art that defies a certain, strict interpretation. It defies criticism and asks the audience to feel free in all manner of interpretation.

    How lucky we were to have you choose this for the film club. This proved to be a terrific film for discussion. To be responsive and responsible. It can continue to bring people together in engagements that make relationships strong and connected. As a magical narrative, for “plot” per se does not seem important to Kieslowski, it holds us in a neverending fascination with aboutness as you have amply demonstrated by your meditations and research.
    I’m sure I will wander again into the Kieslowski maze you have erected again and perhaps I will find you inside it devising new twists and turns. –Daveed

  3. Gilmour, again says:

    It’s PREISNER, not “Peisner,” whose music I have been listening to for a day or so at a Polish friend’s place in L.A. The compositions constantly bring to mind, to my mind’s eye, images from Kieslowski’s films. I wonder whether I can listen to his music without imagining film images. Ethereal beauties, they are sadly evocative of a lost past, of cathedrals from a religious age long past, of haunted places like secret gardens and mysterious woods. My head rings with the sonority of his vocal pieces for minutes after the music has concluded. Could there have been a more appropriate musical accompaniment to Kieslowski’s beautiful, slow-paced, precious narratives and imagery? Into the maze, again … — Gillie

  4. Peter Farnum says:

    Thank-you all, what a great discussion.

  5. Ron Boothe says:

    Peter,
    I just went back and re-read all of your commentaries about “Double Life of Veronique”. What a wonderful experience! When we watched and discussed the film almost a year ago, my life was so hectic that I did not have the time to do more than skim what you and others had written. Now that I have had a chance to read your commentaries, and the comments by others, in a more leisurely fashion it makes me want to go back and watch several of the Kieslowski films again.

    I have only two pithy comments to add.

    The first has to do with the theme of empathy. A while ago you and I discussed the book “I am a Strange Loop” by Douglas Hofstadter in which he provides some deep scientific and philosophical thinking about what it means to have empathy for someone else. I cannot help but think there are some parallels between the scientific and philosophical approaches to empathy expressed by Hofstadter and the poetic ideas about empathy expressed by Kieslowski in Double Life of Veronique. I have been thinking about what Hofstadter says about empathy with reference to another film we watched in the film club recently, “Spring Summer Fall Winter Spring”. When I have a chance I hope to write something about that topic. I would love to hear any of your thoughts about that topic with reference to Kieslowski.

    My second comment is to ask you to think about something I read recently in Steven Pinker’s book “The Stuff of Thought”. Pinker says it better than I could so I quote from page 156 of my hardcover copy of his book: “Since a given set of elementary particles can be in only a finite number of states and positions, there are only a finite number of possible arrangements of matter in a given volume…This would imply that there are only so many possible universes, which would in turn mean that universes would repeat themselves in an infinite multiverse. If so, then about 10 to the 10 to the 28th meters away there is an exact replica of you reading an exact replica of this book, and somewhere else a replica of you that decided to put it down…” Perhaps “Multiple Lives of Veronique” would be more accurate?
    Ron

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