“For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” —First Corinthians 13:12, KJV
The first shot of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1991 film The Double Life Of Veronique is a pan across a nighttime cityscape, seen through a murky haze of smog… and seen upside down, from the point of view of a little girl being dangled head-downward, as her mother tells her to look for a particular star. Then Kieslowski cuts to a fuzzy blur with a gigantic magnified eye in the middle of it—the eye of another little girl in a different country (but played by the same child), looking at a leaf through a magnifying glass, as her mother tells her to examine it closely and appreciate the fine veins. The next shot, as the credits roll, is a woman walking in a public place, flattened and stretched through a lens, with washes of color and darkness passing over her; it’s hard to guess at her age, or the setting, or the era. In less than three minutes, Kieslowski distorts reality three times, giving viewers no hint how the three strange images are connected.
But he is hinting at something specific with the dialogue in that opening. Two different warm, maternal figures—both of whom are long-gone a moment later, once the little girls have become grown women—both tell their children to look, to watch, to pay attention to small details. It’s a rare hint from Kieslowski. Even in projects like the Decalogue series, based on the Biblical 10 Commandments, and the Three Colors trilogy, based on the colors and concepts of the French flag, Kieslowski doesn’t tend to underline his themes; he leaves them to the audience to interpret. But here, he tells them exactly what they need to do to make sense of the film: Watch for the details. Accept, even if things seem unfamiliar, or altered from the usual way of seeing them. The Double Life Of Veronique isn’t a didactic film, mostly—it swims in a sea of dreamy, intensely colored images and emotion-driven associations, and lets viewers draw their own conclusions. But with those three distorted opening shots, Kieslowski attunes audiences to an altered reality, where things are stretched, squashed, and colored in strange ways—where they’re present, but obscured. Nothing in Double Life can entirely be taken for granted: Not the city, not nature, and not the protagonist herself. In his vision, everything is just a little strange, so everything is new.
On paper, the story of The Double Life Of Veronique is fairly simple. In Poland, a young woman named Weronika (Irène Jacob) lives with a great passion for life: She embraces her lover Antek (Jerzy Gudejko) with the same ardency she brings to the experience of being caught in a rainstorm, or experiencing a shower of dust motes falling from a decrepit ceiling. She also embraces her music fervently, dropping Antek cold and moving to Krakow when she gets an opportunity to perform. But her heart is weak, and the intensity of her singing strains it. Even so, she continues to perform—and dies of a heart attack in the middle of a performance.
In Paris, Weronika’s exact double Veronique (also Irène Jacob) lives her own life, unaware of Weronika’s existence, though Weronika did once catch a glimpse of her dopplegänger when Veronique was traveling in Krakow. Veronique is more cautious and cerebral, and after Weronika’s death, she feels a great grief—and is moved, for reasons she can’t explain, to quit her own music studies. Bereft afterward, she sees a puppeteer named Alexandre (Philippe Volter) performing at the elementary school where she teaches music, and becomes infatuated with him. When she starts getting strange clues—a shoelace in the mail, a middle-of-the-night phone call consisting mostly of music, a cassette tape full of the ambient sound of her correspondent leaving home, driving to a train-station café, and settling down to wait for her—she pursues them and finds Alexandre, but is deeply hurt when she realizes he doesn’t feel the same connection. Instead, he claims, he chose her at random, and he’s been baiting her as material for a book. Still, when she flees, he pursues intently. She’s thrilled by this display of emotion, what she was looking for all along, and they wind up at a hotel together. There, he points out Weronika in her Krakow pictures, and she realizes the connection she had, and lost, all without knowing about it. Later, he proudly shows her puppets he’s made of her and Weronika, and announces his intention to write about her, impersonally stealing her life story. She walks out, leaving him and his puppets behind, reeling from a casual comment he made—that he made a spare version of his Veronique puppet because his creations are fragile, and get damaged easily, so he needs a spare.
That’s the story, and it seems straightforward enough. But Kieslowski complicates it immensely, in part by paying attention to detail. Sometimes his camera swerves or dives for woozy effect—when Weronika is succumbing to her heart defect during the concert, the camera focuses blearily on faces, then spins and dives for the floor as Weronika falls, then flits eerily over the audience, as if her soul is winging past overhead. But more often, when the camera lurches, it’s suddenly zooming in on small details, like Veronique’s scarf dragging along the ground behind her, or Weronika’s running feet. Given Kieslowski’s exhortation to look carefully and pay attention, it’s tempting to ascribe meaning to every such quick-hit image, and try to puzzle them all out—which can be difficult, because Kieslowski explains so little in words. Veronique never says, for instance, that she, too, has a heart defect, and that she somehow sensed she needed to give up music because her heart couldn’t take it; instead, she sits at a table, looking at her cardiogram printout showing the irregularity, and playing with Alexandre’s mysterious mail-delivery shoelace, which she straightens out over the printout, as if imitating a flatlined heart monitor. Tracing the meaning of such scenes can feel a little like a scavenger hunt—and can lead to frustrating moments, in trying to figure out whether there’s a similar depth of meaning in what otherwise seems like an idle shot of a car, a child, or a set of chimes.
Sometimes, these images are significant because they rhyme with later images: Weronika twisting her fingers in the strings of a fringed blanket during sex mirrors the way she twines them through the lace of her music case when she sings, drawing a connective line that shows how powerfully her music affects her physically. When Alexandre sends Veronique that shoelace, she connects it with her own music-case lace, similar to Weronika’s, without realizing why—and it’s one more suggestion that he knows something profound about the central mystery of her life. The major disappointment of the film, both for Veronique and the audience, is that he doesn’t—his interest in her is mundane and selfish, and he doesn’t know any more about the mysteries of her life than she does.
Viewers tuned into Kieslowski’s wavelength might have seen that twist coming, since so many other things in the film are visually twisted and bent out of true. Veronique’s late understanding that her connection with Alexandre isn’t sublime and magical is heavily foreshadowed in an abstract way by Kieslowski’s focus on visual distortion and manipulation. Over and over, he uses onscreen lenses to focus, refract, reverse, or warp reality. As Weronika’s father draws, Kieslowski examines his art over his shoulder, through his glasses. Weronika takes the train to Krakow, looking at the countryside through a window that ripples the image, then through a small, transparent rubber ball that upends it. When Veronique runs from Alexandre the first time, she ducks into an apartment building, and spies on him through a door comprised of brightly colored glass panes, so he appears first green, then red, then a vague blur, as he hunts for her.
Again, Kieslowski warns viewers that the world isn’t entirely what it looks like. Despite Veronique’s joie de vivre, despite her obsession with a man she thinks is a romantic figure with all the answers, she isn’t in the kind of romantic comedy that his trail of quirky clues suggests. She’s seeing him through her own warped lens, and it’s a hard moment when she suddenly looks at him square on, and realizes how she’s deceived herself.
Leading up to the emptiness of their magical connection isn’t the only reason Kieslowski plays with refraction. The whole film reminds viewers throughout of the connection between Weronika and Veronique—and reminds them again once it’s severed. When the story focuses on Weronika, living her life, she appears doubled in shot after shot, as she stands near mirrors, or reflective surfaces. Very occasionally in Double Life, a character will actually look directly into a mirror and see themselves (as opposed to the multiple shots where they examine a mirror at an angle, and see someone else) but mostly, Weronika is shadowed by reflections she doesn’t even notice:
But when she dies, and the action switches to Veronique, the reflections stop for a while. Veronique tells her lover that she feels alone in the world, and she doesn’t know why—she’s grieving for something, and doesn’t know who. She feels Weronika’s absence, without ever having seen or known her, and the film communicates that absence by temporarily dropping the theme of doubles and reflections.
Then Veronique sees Alexandre at work behind the scenes of his puppet show, because of a carefully positioned mirror: The audience of schoolchildren and teachers doesn’t notice the detail, but she does. It’s unmistakable how his puppet show brings Weronika’s story to mind: It features a talented ballerina who’s devoted to her art, but who falls while dancing. (Veronique’s describes the story as “the ballerina breaks her leg,” but watching the show, it seems much more as though, like Weronika, the puppet collapses and dies during a particularly deeply felt performance.) Having given her all to her art, she’s transformed into a butterfly, again according to Veronique, though the images look more like the dead ballerina being covered with a shroud, and reawakening as an airy winged spirit. Veronique, however, loses interest in Alexandre’s show, and watches him, instead. And as the story ends, he looks into the smeary, fuzzy mirror himself, and clearly sees her, in all likelihood making the decision at that point to start sending her signs, and see what she makes of them:
From that moment on, the reflections start creeping back into the film, a little at a time. As Veronique looks out of her window at Alexandre below, she’s dimly, barely reflected for the first time. She’s started the process of filling the emptiness in her life with something new: her fascination with him. As she pursues the clues he leaves behind, the reflections become clearer, and crop up in the film more and more often:
At the moment where she’s wearing headphones, listening to the tape he sent her, she’s finally seen fully and directly, under bright light, in the mirror as she brushes her teeth. She’s deep in the mystery now, and she’s forgotten her grief and loneliness as she focuses entirely on him:
And then she finds him, and flees him, and reconnects with him. And typical of Kieslowski’s storytelling, some time passes—it’s unclear how much, or what happens during that time. But Veronique and Alexandre have sex in the hotel, and then she wakes up in his bed, in his apartment, some time later, to find he’s made the puppets of her and Weronika. At that point, for a moment, one doll becomes her uncanny reflection as she operates it and gives it life, while the other doll lies discarded and corpse-like next to her:
And then Alexandre drops his casual bombshell about taking her story for his own work. And Veronique looks stricken. Walking away from him and his puppets—retreating from the revelation which reflects the God who seemingly made her and Weronika as duplicates, in case one of them didn’t survive the divine inspiration of song—she’s seen in reflection one last time, in a murky mirror image that’s also turning away from Alexandre.
As clear as the mirror symbolism is throughout the film—and it is unusually clear, in that it follows a simple progression throughout—there are plenty of images and ideas that don’t seem so easily understood. (We’ll delve into some of the bigger specific mysteries, like the divorce subplot and the film’s closing shot, in tomorrow’s group Forum.) Kieslowski returns over and over to shots where his characters twist sideways, or are seen lying on their side, again looking at the world from a sidelong angle. On a few occasions, he shoots them from above, looking up toward the camera as if surprised to find it there—or as if sensing an unseen spiritual presence. On one occasion, he shoots from below, as Weronika seems to look upward from her grave, and see mourners tossing dirt down upon her. And after her death, Veronique is first seen in extreme closeup in the throes of lovemaking, in a shot haloed with light and distorted with closeness, as the camera pushes in so far, it feels like it’s trying to nestle between the lovers.
All this warping, shifting, reflecting, and hiding makes The Double Life Of Veronique feel more abstract than solid. Kieslowski tells the story from impressionistic angles that become dizzying, because they veer so often from painfully intimate to deliberately distancing. When he makes his audience squint through lace or stare into firelight-colored flares to see his protagonists, he puts them at a remove that feels odd, coming juxtaposed with scenes where the camera crawls into bed with those protagonists at particularly intimate moments. Again and again, he makes a point of giving viewers off-kilter views of the world.
But by constantly pulling away from head-on views, from simple framing and straightforward visuals, he encourages the audience to examine every frame, and to study how he’s telling his story. So much of Double Life is in the juxtapositions: Weronika shouting out of a window, offering help to a heavily laden old woman in the street, may not be significant, but the moment takes on weight when Veronique sees a similar old woman, and has a moment of déjà vu. It’s hard to know how to interpret a shot of a woman glowering when Weronika is awarded the prize at a competition—is she a second-place competitor? A stymied judge who disapproves of the decision? If Weronika and Veronique are God’s avatars on Earth, bringing glorious music to the world, is the angry woman an Antonio Salieri-like figure representing the other side? Or something else entirely? (On a commentary track on Criterion’s Double Life release, film scholar and Kieslowski-book author Annette Insdorf suggests she’s a “harbinger of the angel of death”—a rather dramatic interpretation, but one Kieslowski does nothing to encourage or refute.) When she recurs in Paris—initially seeming flabbergasted at seeing Veronique, then lingering and glowering in a café to watch her—is the moment significant? Viewers can decide for themselves, since Kieslowski doesn’t say.
The film’s music is similarly mysterious, compelling, and confusing. Zbigniew Preisner’s score (attributed within the film to a fictional composer, Van den Budenmayer, whom Veronique professes to admire) returns to the same operatic, insistent theme over and over, linking Weronika’s work with Alexandre’s puppet show, and with Veronique’s state of mind. When Veronique hears the music, she gets flashes of Weronika’s performance—but it isn’t always clear when the music is in her ears, when it’s just in her mind, and when it’s only a presence for the viewers. Possibly that’s a distinction that doesn’t even matter to Preisner and Kieslowski: It’s enough that the music unites the film’s emotional palette, building it to a glorious intensity of emotion.
And that’s what ultimately makes the dreamy, elusive narrative of The Double Life Of Veronique so compelling, in spite of the unanswered questions, the narrative driven more by association and suggestion than explanation, and the oblique ending. It’s a rapturous experience, even amid death and grief; it takes place in a heightened world, where people apparently die of rapture and artistic fervor, and connect with a glance across a crowded auditorium, and have a strange but powerful relationship with a mysterious, distant God who can imbue them with glorious talent, but not the strength to survive it. Jacob, who gives a tremendous performance here as two similar women living two strikingly different lives (and took home Cannes’ Best Actress award after the film premièred there), gives it a melancholy yet uplifted air, as she charges through life in one incarnation, then eases through life in another, always attuned to the world around her. Her performance is another key element holding the film together, giving it a winsomeness and energy that keeps it moving forward, even at its most opaque and dreamlike.
Double Life opens with distorted images of the world, and two separate commands to examine it closely, to focus on the details and pay attention. It ends with Veronique, in a moment of melancholy, touching a tree, and examining its bark—again, focusing on the details, and paying close attention. It’s a strange place to end, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions—as they so often have to with this film—based on associations and events, rather than flat explanations. But it’s an appropriate way to bookend a film that’s almost entirely about perspectives, from literal, physical viewing angles to life philosophies and life-or-death decisions. Over and over, Kieslowski emphasizes that perspective matters, even if interpretation is difficult: What you make of what you see isn’t necessarily as important as the experience of seeing it. Like Veronique, going through a series of discoveries that sometimes narrow and sometimes expand her world, we may all eventually be in a better position to understand everything we’ve taken in. For now, it’s enough that we absorb as much as possible, and don’t lose sight of the small things, because it’s so easy from there to lose sight of the big picture as well.
Tomorrow, our discussion of The Double Life Of Veronique continues with a staff forum on the film’s divides between emotion and logic, reality and fantasy, mystery and specificity, and more. And on Thursday, Noel Murray dives into Kieslowski’s early career as a documentarian, and explores his shift to feature filmmaking.