Keith: This film almost seems to necessitate a neologism that encompasses both the words “style” and “storytelling.” In The Double Life Of Veronique style is storytelling, and vice versa. That’s true of all films, of course, but this film’s sensual qualities figure more prominently in the narrative, which has some passages that still confuse me after multiple viewings. We can reduce the story to its barest elements: A young Polish woman named Weronika (Irène Jacob) dies of a heart defect while performing in a concert, not long after seeing her exact double, a Parisian woman named Veronique (also Jacob). Upon Weronika’s death, the focus shifts to Veronique, who quits music, visits a doctor for a cardiogram, falls in love with a puppeteer and children’s-book author named Alexandre (Philippe Volter) after spotting him in a mirror, gets lured into his life by a series of clues, and becomes aware of Weronika’s existence.
There’s no traditional story here, so much as a lot of elements placed in meaningful conjunction, and filmed in a way that bypasses logic in favor of emotion. Working with cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, Kieslowski frames compositions at odd angles, shoots in extreme close-up and through distorting surfaces, and above all, fills the film with color. It’s the same style he brought to his other late-career masterpiece, the Three Colors trilogy, but if anything, those films dial back on the approach. (One of the most daring choices, shooting first person from Weronika’s perspective as she dies, and then from the perspective of her soul, presumably, as it flies across the audience, gives the film one of its most intense moments when, in lesser hands, it could have gone horribly wrong.) Also key: Zbigniew Preisner’s music, which appears via both the score, and as the music of a long-lost Polish composer whose work Weronika performs, and which Alexandre uses in his puppet show. The film is an overwhelming experience, in the best sense, but what makes the movie great also makes it kind of hard to write about, doesn’t it?
Tasha: Let’s hope not, since we have a lot of discussion ahead. If anything, I think Veronique’s elusiveness makes it more open to discussion, because so much of it is up to interpretation. And while some of those interpretations may not be what Kieslowski intended, it’s hard to say they’re definitively wrong, given the gauziness of what we see on the screen. We’ll dig into some of those interpretations a little more under the “Mysteries” section, but as far as Style/Storytelling goes, one of the biggest question marks for me in the movie is when exactly Preisner’s music is meant to be diagetic. It’s clear enough when Weronika is singing, or when Alexandre plays it as part of his puppet show, or plays it for Veronique over the phone. At other times, though, the theme by the fictional Polish composer swells in the background, and it’s unclear whether it’s something Veronique is hearing in her life, or it’s just the background theme going on in her mind, or it’s something only we hear. The film pushes some storytelling decisions on to individual viewers, to interpret not just what events might mean, but what’s actually happening—for instance, in the scene close to the end, where Veronique weeps over Weronika’s photo, and Alexandre initiates sex. Is she crying because she’s finally realizing for the first time that her feelings of not being alone were justified? Because she realizes Weronika is dead? Is she weeping for the lost opportunity for connection, or because she’s finally made the connection? And what do we make of Alexandre putting the moves on her, which she doesn’t respond to until her sudden orgasm? I’ve always read that as a creepy violation—he keeps kissing her even as she keeps turning away from him, crying the whole time, and while she doesn’t say no, there’s nothing close to yes in there either. In the same way, his later revelation that he’s stealing her life story for his work feels like a violation to me, but Kieslowski never has Veronique put her reaction into words. There’s a progression of events here, presented artfully, but without exposition; Kieslowski makes “storytelling” a personal, internal process.
Noel: One of the issues I often have to overcome with art-films is that their obliqueness is sometimes matched by a general joylessness, with characters who don’t converse, connect, or experience pleasure. What I love about The Double Life Of Veronique is that it’s so sensual. I have some theories about what it all means, which I’ll save for later—except to piggyback on your semi-rhetorical question, Tasha, and say I think Veronique becoming overwhelmed upon seeing the picture of Weronika is about a deep feeling of empathy, which the movie shares. I credit Irène Jacob for this impression as much as Kieslowski. The almost-ecstatic expression on Weronika’s face when she sings, and the intensity with which both Weronika and Veronique respond to sex (with the exception of that weeping encounter) moves me, because they’re moved. There’s an emphasis on natural beauty and poetic visual expression throughout The Double Life Of Veronique, as though Kieslowski were seeing the world through the eyes of these two young women, who are so easily delighted and so easily dismayed. This is an intoxicating film that shows how life itself can be an intoxicant, in ways both uplifting and depressing. I see Veronique and Weronika as like 20-year-olds who’ve been drinking all night, and end up, at 2 a.m., telling all their friends how much they love them. The whole film has that same feel.
Tasha: It’s true, Jacob is indispensable to the film, because she comes across as so ethereal and fragile in some scenes (as in Red), and yet so happy to be in the world. I love that scene after Weronika wins the competition, where she bounces her rubber ball in the hallway, then lifts her face up to the dust that falls from the ceiling, beaming as if she were being bathed in cool spring rain instead of plaster debris. (Then again, she has the same reaction to what looks to be actual cool spring rain.) The latter half of the film, with Alexandre leaving her clues to follow to find him, is a little like a gender-swapped Amélie, with Jacob playing the believable, earthly version of Audrey Tautou’s cartoonishly exaggerated gamin girl. Both characters have the same joy in life, which enables the plot and buoys the mood, but Veronique seems more like someone we might actually meet in real life, which helps ground the film’s more abstract and spiritual qualities a bit.
Scott: Watching Double Life for the first time since it was released in 1991, I was struck by how much the film’s style jibes with the films of Wong Kar-wai. Both are interested in love, coincidence, and uncanny connections, both make those associations through a seductive flurry of colorful images and music, and both encourage the audience to feel their way through a movie rather than think through it. The Double Life Of Veronique is a sensual experience first and foremost, and though we’re going to get into its symbols, politics, and metaphysics, Kieslowski gives the impression that he doesn’t want viewers to get stuck on any of those matters in the course of actually watching the movie. It’s better just to get swept up in the current.
Emotions vs. intellect
Scott: Double Life is full of mysteries and complexities, but it beckons viewers to feel their way through it more than think their way through it. In that, Kieslowski wants to bring us in line with his protagonists, who make decisions based on intuition and compulsion rather than rationality. Just the premise of two women who are connected like Weronika and Veronique requires a leap of faith not unlike Veronique’s sudden choice to quit her musical studies, based merely on the feeling that it’s the right step for her to take. Veronique’s pursuit of Alexandre is also thinly premised in the conventional sense—their only exchange before that point is curt—but rendered completely sensible in light of Kieslowski’s design, which is about accepting cosmic coincidences and metaphysical associations. But perhaps I’m guilty of underthinking the film. Are there resonances I’m missing by allowing it to wash over me? And not to get too touchy-feely about it, but how does this film make you feel when you’re watching it?
Noel: Enchanted? Is that a weird word to use here? I get the same feel from The Double Life Of Veronique that I get from a great Brian De Palma thriller sequence, or a Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger setpiece. I kind of hold my breath throughout, astonished even by shots as simple as the one where the camera is mounted on the front of a city bus as it turns, peeking at Krakow through the bus’ enormous windows.
But I wouldn’t say I turn my brain off during the film. There are motifs galore to unpack, like the twine both women fidget with, or the preponderance of glass. What does it mean, for example, that Weronika so often seems to be on display, even in her grave? When she’s getting ready for her fateful concert, for example, she gets distracted by the sight of an elderly woman outside, and while still half-dressed, Weronika approaches the window, where anyone on the street could look at her. I can justify a shot like that from a purely aesthetic perspective. (Jacob is a fit young actor who looks attractive in her undergarments.) But does it have some other meaning, when linked to all the other shots where Weronika is encased behind glass and in full view? Is Weronika like the floor-model of Veronique?
Those are the kinds of things that run through my mind while watching this movie. It’s just that I don’t let those thoughts distract me from soaking up the beauty.
Keith: “Enchanted” might be the word, though it seems inadequate. This movie feels complete and beautiful while I’m watching it but asked to explain it to someone, I’d probably come up short. We can unpack it and I’m enjoying doing that, but trying to say what this movie is “about”… I’m not sure I can do that and I’m perfectly okay with that.
Tasha: I’m getting the impression from this and the Style/Storytelling kickoff that Keith has a much more instinctive reaction to this film than I do. As much as I enjoy basking in some of the scenes in this film, I find it rewards analysis like few films do, which makes that analysis irresistible to me. With, say, a Michel Gondry or David Lynch film, there’s so much dreamy (or nightmarish) imagery that seems to come from an internal and untranslatable place that it defies analysis. With Kieslowski, and this film in particular, I feel more like I’m watching an intricate code. That may well come in part from Kieslowski’s years under Soviet censorship, when coded messages where necessary to sneak messages by the gatekeepers. Or it may just be the way he tells stories. But the more I watch Double Life, the more exciting and charged its elliptical symbolism becomes, and the more what once seemed like a sleepy but heartfelt impressionistic film becomes a solid and message-driven story. I used to feel enchanted, but this time through, I felt more intellectually engaged—and delighted that the film supports a deep level of intellectual engagement. I don’t know if you’re missing out exactly, Scott, because just enjoying the film experientially isn’t wrong, either. But I do feel like unpacking those motifs and possibly overthinking the movie just keeps giving me a deeper appreciation of Kieslowski’s careful attention to craft here.
Reality vs. fantasy
Noel: I’ll be writing about this more tomorrow in my essay about Kieslowski’s move away from documentary filmmaking, but there are elements of “reality” in The Double Life Of Veronique that should be acknowledged, between all of the movie’s dreamy coincidences. The film takes place in a real Poland, and a real France, with recognizable signifiers of the world of 1990. Some of those trappings are inadvertently dated, like Alexandre’s gigantic Walkman, but it’s no accident that Weronika walks through a Krakow town square where masses of protestors and policemen are facing each other. This is where Weronika lives: an unsettled Eastern Europe, still lurching out of Communist control. We’ve talked about the possible meanings of these two women’s parallel lives, but could this movie also be a real-world commentary on how how two similar people’s choices have been shaped by the relative “freedom” of their upbringing? Or does focusing on that take away from the more mystical qualities of The Double Life Of Veronique?
Tasha: The “shaping of lives” analysis doesn’t really hold up for me, because I don’t see any real constraints on Weronika: In that scene with the protestors, she’s utterly ignoring the political upheaval as she walks along, lost in her happiness about her singing success. She doesn’t even seem worried for her physical safety, in spite of people running and screaming around her. Her talent lets her bypass the traditional educational route to a singing career—no restraints there—and she seems to have full sexual and financial freedom, and the ability to travel wherever she wants as well. If anything, the two women seem like equals in their freedom to follow their hearts—to discard a lover and move on, to pick a career in spite of others’ disapproval, and so forth.
But if you really want to root the film in reality, I could support a sly reading of the film as representative of Kieslowski’s career in that moment: turning his back on the tumult in Poland (as Weronika cavalierly strolls through the fray, unharmed and unimpressed), ending his successful career there (as Weronika dies at the height of her success), and moving on to international fame (as the story moves to France), but with more choices just producing more confusion (represented by Veronique’s giving up her art in order to teach, and subsequently having trouble finding her way). I doubt Kieslowski would like that interpretation, but it’s certainly possible to form a cogent, albeit slightly facile, argument around it. (Keith tells me Jonathan Romney advances a similar idea in the extensive Criterion liner notes, for instance.)
Scott: I think you have to contend with that volatile scene on the streets of Krakow, because Kieslowski could have staged Weronika and Veronique’s near-miss against any other kind of backdrop. Tasha’s reading of it in light of Kieslowski’s departure from Poland to France is really clever, but even if you don’t want to make such parallels, the fact that he went on to direct a trilogy of films about the colors of the French flag and what they represent is enough to reveal that politics—and the ideals they represent—aren’t far from his mind. If you think about Weronika and Veronique as stand-ins for their respective nations, and consider how the connection between is severed with Weronika’s death, maybe there’s something about the Soviet bloc and its impact on Western Europe (and vice versa) that’s worth puzzling over.
Keith: To pull back a bit, can we talk about the reality of the film itself? Part of what makes it work is the way it finds seemingly supernatural connections in everyday life, using mundane details to build toward something extraordinary. There’s no explaining the way Weronika’s life rhymes with Veronique’s, but the cumulative effect of all those coincidences feels meaningful. Though it would mean robbing it of two powerful moments—and I wouldn’t want any less Jacob—the movie might even have worked with two different actresses in the lead role, making the connections between their lives without any physical resemblance.
Tasha: Would it have, though? The connections are already so subtle, in terms of similar names, a shared singing talent (in Veronique’s case, only subtly implied, since we don’t see her sing), and a penchant for lip balm and the gold-ring-against-the-eye business. Without Weronika’s thunderstruck reaction to their near-miss in Krakow, and Veronique’s breakdown upon looking at the photographic contact sheets, I’m not sure we’d associate them with each other at all. At the very least, it’d take a clunkier and more obvious narrative device, like someone commenting on the similarity in their lives. I prefer the airy fantasy in this case to a more determined reality.
Keith: Maybe it wouldn’t be as powerful. But I think it could almost work. Scott, to expand on your point, it’s worth noting that a piece of music for a united Europe is in the background of Blue, and that White is largely concerned with the way capitalism was taking root in post-communist Poland.
Tasha: As I said in my “Next time on Movie Of The Week…” teaser, Kieslowski claims people used to understand his abstract symbolism better in the Soviet days, when filmmakers and audiences were both reaching to connect around the imposed barriers of censorship. That’s a fascinating but dubious claim, but it does make me wonder if some of the film’s enduring mysteries are simply symbols we don’t have the political, social, or cultural background to unravel. Some of them are easier to understand with online research: For instance, apparently when both Weronika and Veronique rub their lower eyelids with a gold ring, they’re using an old folk remedy against styes. Alexandre’s casual reveal about why he makes a spare copy of his puppet implies an almost painfully literal explanation for the mystery of Weronika and Veronique’s connection: The God who created them and imbued them with sublime artistic skills knew they were fragile, and wanted a spare in case the first one broke down. According to Criterion’s DVD commentary, one of Kieslowski’s many discarded endings—he planned to have 17 of them, one for each theater in France where the film would open!—involved Veronique running across a third dopplegänger, implying multiple backups. Which was after all necessary, since the first one broke and the second decided to quit music before it could destroy her, too.
But there are still many open questions in The Double Life Of Veronique that can’t be resolved given what’s seen onscreen. The one that remains most elusive for me is in trying to understand what’s going on with Veronique’s friend who’s apparently trying to divorce her husband, Jean-Pierre. Veronique volunteers to perjure herself in the court case by claiming she’s slept with Alexandre more than a dozen times, and she seems to volunteer for the thrill, because she’s already smitten with Alexandre, and wants the details of what he’s like in bed, which she seems to think her friend can give her. But her friend doesn’t seem to have that information, or even really know Alexandre’s name. And then when Jean-Pierre shows up on Veronique’s doorstep to accuse her, he says he’s about to turn himself in. According to that same DVD commentary, all this is part of a subplot that Kieslowski mostly excised—but what do we make of what’s left? How would Veronique claiming a relationship with Alexandre help her friend’s divorce case? What has Jean-Pierre done? Are there lingering questions like this that still stick with you after watching the film?
Keith: If you didn’t bring up the adultery/perjury subplot, I was going to, since I thought maybe I’d missed something. Glad that’s not the case, but it’s still baffling. As is, I’m not sure we have enough evidence to puzzle out what’s going on. But isn’t that true of the whole movie? It may be the most opaque element in The Double Life Of Veronique, but it’s hardly the only opaque element. Yet that suits a movie that repeatedly allows characters a glimpse behind the veil, but only a glimpse. Weronika sees Veronique. Veronique learns of Weronika after her death. Neither gets an answer as to what it all means, and neither do we, but there’s beauty in not knowing.
Scott: To me, the subplot about Veronique agreeing to give false testimony in the divorce proceedings doesn’t qualify as a mystery on par with, say, Kieslowski’s color scheme, or visual motifs, or musical cues. It strikes me more as a flaw, a subplot he introduces out of nowhere, and doesn’t follow through on satisfactorily. Veronique’s willingness to perjure herself says something about her character—but what?—but all other questions I have about the subplot are about clarifying the action, not trying to understand what it means. It doesn’t surprise me to hear that Kieslowski mostly excised the subplot, and I think the film would have functioned better without it.
Tasha: So what do you consider a mystery about the color scheme?
Scott: In light of the Three Colors trilogy, which played on the colors of the French flag and what each of them represents, I wonder what the equally bold use of color in Double Life signifies. Do they situate us in a certain place, or maybe have associations with Veronique or Weronika? Do they evoke a certain feeling? I don’t really have an answer.
Tasha: There’s certainly a degree to which the intensity of color is expressing an intensity of feeling throughout the film—Weronika’s passion for life, experience, and music seems to be literally more than her heart can stand, and it’s implied that Veronique has a similar emotional intensity boiling away under her more prosaic decision to give up her singing and work in a comparatively heart-safe schoolteacher job. I always thought the color palette was a way of expressing how exquisitely, overwhelmingly beautiful both women find the world. But if there’s a Three Colors-level symbolism at work in the specific color choices, I’m missing it.
I’m also curious how the rest of you interpret the mystery of Veronique’s opaque relationship with Alexandre. I read them as a mismatch—she falls for him through his art, he uses her in a game to bolster his latest book, she’s disappointed when he expresses their connection as an experiment rather a passionate link. She flees and is pleased when he follows, because it indicates some emotion, but his choices thereafter are selfish—responding to her grief only with sexual interest, stealing her life story for another book—and she recoils and retreats home again. The Criterion audio commentary makes the interesting point that Polish films of the era tended to be much more cynical and melancholy about romance than American films, and that sexual trysts were more about ongoing, inevitably unsatisfying attempts to find the obscure object of desire than about happily-ever-afters. But I’ve seen enough write-ups of the film to know that some people interpret Veronique’s professed love as real, deep, and meaningful, and their bond as true and enduring. Again, Kieslowski doesn’t spell any of it out. Where do you fall?
Noel: That same Annette Insdorf commentary suggests that romance to Veronique is “a set of clues,” and that’s how I see it as well. I don’t see any particular connection between Veronique and Alexandre; I see the connection more between Veronique and Alexandre’s games, no matter how angry they initially seem to make her. The Double Life Of Veronique is a puzzle-movie of sorts, but it’s not a puzzle with any one solution, I don’t think, because so long as we can reshuffle the pieces and come up with new interpretations, we can continue to derive some enjoyment from it. I believe one of the reasons Veronique gets so angry with Alexandre is because when she learns his reason for leading her on, it stops the game. Then when he comes after her and says he loves her, the game is afoot again, inasmuch as new lovers everywhere are always trying to figure each other out.
I don’t want to go too far with this reading of the movie, because I don’t think Kieslowski’s biggest mystery—why these two young women have so much in common—has anything to do games and puzzles. There are two ways I look at the Weronika/Veronique parallels. One is to go completely meta with it, and to see Kieslowski as a divine presence, creating a character and then grabbing his big eraser so he can start all over again. Another is to go back to this idea of ordinary human connection that I mentioned before. “Is there someone out there going through what I go through? Someone who sees the world the way I do? Has this person learned things I haven’t, and perhaps made different choices?” These are beguiling questions, and I think one of the big reasons Kieslowski does so much to warp the image in this movie—shooting through glass, showing things upside down, periodically lightening and darkening the frame, et cetera—is to create this link between Weronika and Veronique visually. The two women literally share a perspective at times: slightly distorted, but golden-hued.
Tasha: Here’s a final mystery for you: What does that last shot mean? Harvey Weinstein asked Kieslowski to add a couple of shots for the American release, and he did, with Veronique’s father coming out of his house, seeing her distressed, and embracing her. That ending is easier to grasp: She’s wounded, whether over her discovery about Weronika, or over Alexandre’s obliviousness, or both, and she comes to a trusted loved one for comfort. But Kieslowski’s version ends with her sitting in her car outside her father’s house, with her hand resting on a tree, as that thematic score rises yet again. I have a specific interpretation for that moment, but it’s a little cosmic and out-there, so I’m curious whether anyone else wants to offer an interpretation.
Noel: I saw it as her feeling the connectedness of all things. What do you got, Tasha?
Keith: That’s more or less where I land, too, and relevant in that it’s outside her father’s house, a place likely to stir those sorts of feelings. I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this. And do any of them relate to the fact you mentioned, that Kieslowski planned to prepare multiple endings for this film?
Tasha: I’ve got a couple of thoughts. One is just practical: It’s a loop back to the second shot of the film, where Veronique’s mother is showing her tree leaves, and talking about the seasons, and how they change the trees. She may, in that moment, be thinking about her mother, and missing her in the same way she feels grief for Weronika, whom she never met; she may be contemplating the cycle of life, or the progression of time, or thinking back to her childhood, when there was still a possibility of meeting Weronika.
But the interpretation I favor—one there’s no particular support for, except that we don’t know exactly what’s going on in her head, and we can decide for ourselves—is that she’s feeling a little melancholy kinship with the tree because of what she’s just learned from Alexandre and his wooden puppets. Veronique runs away when she realizes she’s essentially God’s “spare,” and that he’s already broken one fragile version of her. When she touches the tree, I see her as contemplating the raw material those puppets are made of, and thinking about how she’s raw material as well—she chose to take a safer path by giving up singing, but she’s still contemplating what she could have been made into.
As I say, there’s no specific reason to take this reading, except that I like it. And that’s part of the frustration and part of the fun of Kieslowski’s deliberate opacity. As curious as I am about all those other planned endings, I have to think they’d ruin the spell the movie casts, in the way the American ending feels like less of a mystery than the original one—more data here means less obscurity, means less room for interpretation. I wouldn’t want all films to take this elusive, find-your-own-symbolism route, but it’s a perfect approach in this one case.
Tasha: In a featurette on Criterion’s DVD, Kieslowski himself says this about what The Double Life Of Veronique means: “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 around you whose lives and well-being depends on your actions.” We don’t need to feel constrained to his interpretation—Veronique is, above all, an emotional experience that will hit viewers differently depending on their own emotional palette and personal state—but I still find that interpretation fascinating, because it’s one that never would have occurred to me. Certainly Weronika lives incautiously by pursuing her art and seemingly dying of sheer transcendent emotion, while Veronique lives incautiously by chasing her longing for romance around town, without regard for her heart’s safety. But the film is so seductive about the power of their emotions that it’s hard to see it as a cautionary tale about loving unwisely, or feeling too deeply. Kieslowski goes on to say that we all have a responsibility to live “carefully and attentively,” observing people around us carefully, and our own selves most carefully of all. Would any of you have gotten that reading out of this film?
Keith: Nope! Though it’s a lovely reading, and it certainly works. If anything, it feels more appropriate to the Three Colors films, which have a deep concern for how the actions of one person affects the lives of others, even when they’re attempting not to act at all. (In the first film of the trilogy Three Colors: Blue, Julie (Juliette Binoche) attempts to withdraw from the world, only to realize it’s an impossible desire.) I’m not sure I’d attempt to ascribe a moral to this film at all—beautiful and moving as it is—but then again, I didn’t make it, and it’s certainly within Kieslowski’s rights to do so.
Noel: So Kieslowski was making The Butterfly Effect this whole time? No, I can’t say that ever occurred to me. Although here’s an example of how living incautiously could destroy someone else’s well-being: Kieslowski originally wanted Andie MacDowell to be the lead in The Double Life Of Veronique, after he saw Sex, Lies And Videotape. Now I’m imagining that somewhere out there, there’s a doppelgänger version of this movie, only instead of being beautiful and poignant, it’s kind of shitty.
Scott: I’m a pretty staunch believer in the “fallacy of intent,” which rejects the notion that knowing the author’s intention means knowing the correct interpretation of his/her work. Not only did Kieslowski’s “live more carefully” moral not occur to me, I reject it wholly, because I’d like to go on thinking that The Double Life Of Veronique is not so easily reduced. The fact that the film isn’t so programmatic is a large part of its appeal; it doesn’t gain by losing its enigmatic allure.
Yesterday, Tasha opened our conversation on Double Life Of Veronique with a screenshot-packed Keynote examining how the film’s warped imagery and constant reflections help tell the story. And tomorrow, Noel will examine Kieslowski’s move from documentaries to feature films.