The Double Life Of Veronique (La double vie de Véronique)

Poland/France (1991) Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski

Often when some filmmakers make their most celebrated and successful works there is a film that precedes it that is a portent of things to come. For Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, the film that came before his noted Three Colours trilogy is The Double Life Of Veronique.

The title is a little misleading insofar as there is no chicanery or deception involved, instead it revolves two people who happen to look alike, share similar interests and have an unearthly bond between each other, despite being unaware of the other’s existence. In Poland, Weronika (Irène Jacob) is a young girl with an unusual singing voice who moves to Krakow to be with her sick aunt (Halina Gryglaszewska).

While there Weronika auditions for the local choir and gets the role, but during her debut performance she dies on stage. At the same time in Paris, a young music teacher Véronique (Jacob) suddenly feels an odd sensation, as if something inside her dies. Later she becomes enamoured with a puppeteer Alexandre Fabbri (Philippe Volter), who sends Véronique a number of odd gifts for her to decipher as they represent his declaration of his love for her.

The reason Veronique can be considered the predecessor for the Three Colours trilogy lies in the fact it was Kieslowski’s first film to be partially made outside of Poland, while many of the aesthetic motifs are continued in the later films. For this writer Veronique is a less immediate film than the trilogy, sharing more DNA with Blue in its slightly opaque narrative and reliance on symbolism.

It is strongly suggested right at the very start of this film that the girls aren’t separated twins which gives Kieslowski a free rein to create a pseudo-fantasy out of a unique emotional connection which doppelgangers aren’t known to have. This reveals itself in many subtle ways which requires the audience’s full attention, with a rather sizeable giveaway near the end which surprisingly isn’t as contrived as it could have been.

Overlap and interaction between the two ladies is therefore minimal, the closest to a physical meeting coming when Véronique as a tourist in Poland is photographing a riot in the same street in which Weronica is walking. One possible facet of the characters which has been thankfully eschewed is having one of the women being the opposite of the other – both Weronika and Véronique are sweet, normal girls who don’t really stand out from the crowd.

They share the ability to beguile every male they meet, seemingly unaware of their beauty (a minor point but Véronique later sports shorter hair than Weronika) and both are loyal to their families. The only real difference would be that Weronika is the more capricious and free of the two while Véronique is reserved and cautious. Both however declare a sensation of being/not being “alone in the world” which changes once Weronika dies.

Kieslowski takes a dreamlike approach towards exploring Véronique’s melancholic drifting through life as she searches to define her identity, shown through the various ways in which Véronique find herself drawn to things for the oddest reasons. Alexandre’s marionette show seems to resonate for Véronique for reasons unknown, while she is drawn to a piece of music that just happens to be the same song Weronika was signing she passed away.

Because this is dealing with parallel existences none of these things are simple script contrivances from Kieslowski and collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, thus work well as clever leitmotifs to establish what are ostensibly incidental but pertinent connections between Weronica/Véronique. What is of interest is how the idea has been kept on a spiritual level and avoids becoming a horror story, the potential for which is rather evident.

To take the story into the ethereal plains of wistful drama, the visual presentation is characteristically esoteric and experimental. Cinematographer Sławomir Idziak employs many pastoral hues and an array of filters on the cameras creating a wistfully dreamy atmosphere when required, while obtuse and irregular angles serve to heighten the tension of the darker moments.

Aimed at the arthouse crowd there is little chance multiplex audiences will get much enjoyment from this film and will find its refusal to be more open in letting us into Véronique’s world a frustrating and negative trait. The original ending was considered so arcane and unsatisfactory for US distributor and Asian film butcher Harvey Weinstein that he requested a clearer ending for the US release, which Kieslowski obliged but doesn’t sound any less ambiguous.

The angelic Irène Jacob is tasked with portraying two different women who are in fact very similar which is a tall order but one she accomplishes with rare perception and studied grace. Whether it is Weronika’s joyful expressions while singing or the inner turmoil of Véronique’s journey towards romance, Jacob’s performances are both a masterclass in nuance and empathy, creating two unique personalities while avoiding schizophrenic dramatics to distract us from the fact they are the product of the same actress.

Similar to Jacob’s understated and restrained performance, Véronique is a rather quiet film despite music being a very prevalent and recurring theme. It is almost bereft of any real drama and the excitement level, even with a couple of delicate sex scenes, never seems to exceed the anodyne marker.

All conflicts are psychological and internal for Véronique and she bottles them all up, but it is to the testament to Jacob and Kieslowski that there is still an oddly engaging film here. I say “oddly” as I found this to be a bit of a slog in places, in terms of latching onto Kieslowski’s wavelength and perhaps missed what he was trying to impart here.

For this writer The Double Life Of Veronique is a curious work, not completely without its merits which may prove its true worth on repeated viewings. Those who enjoy poetic and symbolic cinema will be more receptive to the charms of this subtle drama.


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