This essay was originally published in the booklet accompanying the 2006 DVD release of The Double Life of Véronique.
A new life experience is in the air today, a perception that explodes the form of the linear narrative and renders life as a multiform flow. Up to the domain of the “hard” sciences (quantum physics and its multiple-reality interpretation; neo-Darwinism), we seem to be haunted by the chanciness of life and the alternate versions of reality. To quote Stephen Jay Gould’s blunt formulation, which uses precisely the cinema metaphor: “Wind back the film of life and play it again. The history of evolution will be totally different.” Either life is experienced as a series of multiple parallel destinies that interact and are crucially affected by meaningless contingent encounters, the points at which one series intersects with and intervenes in another (see Robert Altman’s Short Cuts); or different outcomes of the same plot are repeatedly enacted (the “parallel universes” or “alternative possible worlds” scenarios). Even many “serious” historians have recently published on “virtual histories,” interpreting the crucial modern-age events, from Cromwell’s victory over the Stuarts and the American War of Independence to the disintegration of Communism, as hinging on unpredictable and sometimes even improbable chances. This perception of our reality as one of the possible, often even not the most probable, outcomes of an open situation, this notion that other possible outcomes are not simply canceled out but continue to haunt our reality as a specter of what might have happened, conferring on our reality the status of extreme fragility and contingency, implicitly clashes with the predominant linear narrative forms of our literature and cinema.
Krzysztof Kieślowskis obsession with the role of chance and of parallel alternate histories can be perceived as an endeavor to articulate this new life experience in all its ambiguity, one that links him to the more clearly “postmodern” directors of the past decade or two. (Consider the fact that it was Tom Tykwer who filmed Heaven, the scenario finished by Kieślowski just before his death. Is Tykwer’s Run, Lola, Run not a cyber-inflected remake of Kieślowski’s Blind Chance?)
The lesson of this motif of chance and alternate histories seems to be that we live in a world in which, as in a cyberspace game, when one choice leads to a catastrophic ending, we can return to the starting point and make another, better choice—what was the first time a suicidal mistake can be the second time done in a correct way, so that the opportunity is not missed. In The Double Life of Véronique (1991), Véronique learns from Weronika, avoids the suicidal choice of singing, and survives; in Red (1994), Auguste avoids the mistake of the judge; even White (1993) ends with the prospect of Karol and his French bride getting a second chance and remarrying. The very title of Annette Insdorf’s book on Kieślowski, Double Lives, Second Chances, points in this direction: the other life is here to give us a second chance—that is, as Insdorf states, “repetition becomes accumulation, with a prior mistake as a base for successful action.” However, while it sustains the prospect of repeating the passed choices and thus retrieving the missed opportunities, this universe can also be interpreted in the opposite, much darker way. There is a material feature of Kieślowski’s films that supports this: his use of filters. As described in the director’s own words, in the book Kieślowski on Kieślowski, regarding A Short Film About Killing (1987): “The city and its surroundings are shown in a specific way. The lighting cameraman . . . used filters, which he’d made specially. 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, the world becomes much crueler, duller, and emptier.”
Charles Eidsvik, in Lucid Dreams: The Films of Krzysztof Kieślowski, writes that the director used filters in A Short Film About Killing “as a kind of mask, darkening parts of the image that Kieślowski . . . did not wish to show.” This procedure isn’t used as part of the formulaic depiction of a dream or a vision but in shots rendering gray everyday reality, directly evoking the gnostic notion of the universe as created imperfect and, as such, not yet fully constituted. The closest one can get to this look in reality is, perhaps, the countryside in extreme places like Iceland, or in the Land of Fire, the southernmost tip of South America: patches of grass and wild hedges are intersected by barren raw earth or gravel with cracks out of which sulfuric steam and fire gush, as if the pre-ontological primordial Chaos is still able to penetrate the cracks of the imperfectly formed reality.
Kieślowski’s universe is a gnostic universe, a not-yet-fully-constituted universe created by a perverse and confused, idiotic God who screwed up the work of Creation, producing an imperfect world, and then keeps trying to save whatever can be saved by repeated new attempts—we are all “Children of a Lesser God.” Although they may appear to belong to the premodern space, such gnostic speculations often serve as the theological foundation of the postmodern exploration of alternative realities and cybergames—as in the New Age “cybergnosticism.” In mainstream Hollywood, this uncanny in-between dimension is clearly discernible in what is arguably the most effective scene in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection—the cloned Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) enters the laboratory room in which the previous seven aborted attempts to clone her are on display. Here she encounters the ontologically failed, defective versions of herself, up to the almost successful version, with her own face but with some of her limbs distorted so that they resemble the limbs of the Alien Thing. This creature asks Ripley to kill her, and, in an outburst of violent rage, Ripley effectively destroys the entire horror exhibition.
This unfinished character of reality grounds our freedom of choice: it depends on us which version will prevail. For Kieślowski, this choice is ultimately the choice between “calm life” and “vocation.” In The Double Life of Véronique, the Polish Weronika chooses her vocation, that of a singer, ignoring her heart failure, and meets early death as the result of it (as in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tale of Antonia, who also chooses singing and pays for her choice with death), while the French Véronique betrays her vocation and chooses a quiet, satisfied life. Véronique is thus melancholic and reflective, in contrast to Weronika’s direct enthusiasm for the Cause; to put it in Friedrich Schiller’s terms, she is sentimental, in contrast to Weronika’s naïveté. It is not simply that Véronique profits from her awareness of the suicidal character of Weronika’s choice but also that she accomplishes the act of ethical betrayal by abandoning singing, her true vocation. The presence of this tragic choice is what can prevent us from reducing Véronique to a New Age tale of spiritual self-discovery. As the title says, we have the double life of (one) Véronique. That is, the same person is allowed to redeem (or lose?) herself by being given another chance and repeating the fatal choice.
The idea of the time-space continuum (time as the fourth dimension of space) in modern physics means, among other things, that a certain event (the encounter of multiple particles) can be much more elegantly and convincingly explained if we posit that only one particle travels forward and backward in time. This logic involves the static space-time picture described by Einstein: events do not unfold with the flow of time but present themselves complete, and in this total picture, movements backward and forward in time are as usual as movements backward and forward in space. The illusion that there is a “flow” of time results from our narrow awareness, which allows us to perceive only a tiny strip of the total space-time continuum. Is not something similar going on in the alternative narratives? Beneath ordinary reality there is another, shadowy, pre-ontological realm of virtualities in which the same person travels forth and back, “testing” different scenarios: Véronique electron crashes (dies), then travels back in time and does it again, this time surviving.
So in The Double Life of Véronique, perhaps, we are not dealing with the “mystery” of the communication between two Véroniques but with one and the same Véronique who travels back and forth in time. In these terms, the key scene in the film is the near encounter of the two Véroniques in the large square in Kraków, where a Solidarity demonstration is taking place. This episode is rendered in a vertiginous circular shot reminiscent of the famous 360-degree shot from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Afterward, when the French Véronique is introduced, we can understand Polish Weronika’s perplexity as arising from an obscure awareness that she was about to have an impossible encounter with her double (later, we see a photo of her taken at that moment by Véronique). The camera’s circular movement, then, can be read as signaling the danger of the “end of the world,” like the 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. The camera’s movement thus signals that we are on the verge of the vortex in which different realities mix, that this vortex is already exerting its influence: if we take one step further—that is to say, if the two Véroniques were actually to confront and recognize each other—reality would disintegrate, because such an encounter, of a person with her double, with herself in another time-space dimension, is precluded by the very fundamental structure of the universe.
The topic of choice between alternate realities in Kieślowski’s narratives is clearly allegorical: it contains a reference to Kieślowski himself. Was not his choice that of the Polish Weronika—aware of his heart condition, he chose vocation and then effectively died of heart failure. Kieślowski’s fate is prefigured already in his Camera Buff (1979), the portrait of a man who forsakes the happy family life in order to observe and register reality through the distance of the screen frame. In the final scene of the film, when his wife is leaving him for good, the hero turns the camera on himself and his wife, capturing on film her departure: even in this traumatic intimate moment, he does not get fully involved but persists in his observing attitude—the ultimate proof that he truly elevated filming into his ethical Cause . . . Camera Buff finds its counterpoint in The Calm (1976), about the destiny of Antek, who has just been released from prison. All he wants are the simple things in life: work, somewhere clean to sleep, something to eat, a wife, a television, and peace. Caught in criminal manipulations at his new workplace, he ends up being beaten by his colleagues and, at the film’s end, just mutters, “Calm . . . calm.” The hero of The Calm is not alone: even Valentine, the heroine of Red, claims that all she wants is to live in peace, without any excessive professional ambitions.
Kieślowski advocates neither the moralistic dismissal of Life on behalf of Vocation nor the cheap wisdom of preferring simple Life over Vocation. Exemplary of this complexity is The Scar (1976), the story of an honest Communist cadre who comes to a small provincial town to construct a new chemical factory. He wants to make local people happier and bring progress to the town; however, the factory not only causes ecological problems and undermines traditional ways of life, it also conflicts with the short-term interests of the townspeople. Disillusioned, he gives up his post . . . The problem here is that of the Good—who knows what is Good for others, who can impose his Good on others? Although the cadre succeeds socially (the factory is built), he is aware that he failed ethically. We see here why Freud was skeptical toward the ethical motto “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The problem with it is not that it is too idealistic, overestimating the ethical capacity of man; Freud’s point is rather that if one takes into account the basic perversion of human desire, then the very application of this motto leads to strange results—one certainly wouldn’t like a masochist to follow this precept.
The same complexity marked Kieślowski’s personal choice: after finishing Red, the last part of his Three Colors trilogy, 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: the choice “vocation or quiet life” proved false, 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 Kieślowski the only way to survive was to continue filming, even if this were to mean constantly courting death? Did Kieślowski not, at least from our retroactive view, die at a proper moment? Although premature, his death—like those of Alexander the Great and Mozart—seemed to occur precisely when his opus was rounded up, the ultimate case of the miraculous coincidences around which his films turn. It’s as if his fatal heart attack were a free act, a staged death, striking at the right time—just after he announced that he would no longer be making films.
Should we, then, read Véronique’s second (unethical) choice as a new version of the traditional sublime reversal found, for instance, in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations? When, at his birth, Pip is designated a “man of great expectations,” everybody perceives this as the forecast of his worldly success; however, at the novel’s end, when he abandons London’s false glamour and returns to his modest childhood community, we become aware that he did live up to the forecast that marked his life—it is only by way of finding strength to leave behind the vain thrill of London’s high society that he authenticates the notion of being a “man of great expectations.” And what if it’s the same with Véronique’s second choice—there are things more important than singing, like the simple human goodness radiated by Véronique.
There is, however, a price to be paid for this retreat. When and why, exactly, does Véronique 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 Véronique retreating from when she abandons her lover? She perceives this staging as a domineering intrusion, while it is actually the very obverse: 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.
Slavoj Žižek, philosopher and psychoanalyst, is codirector of the International Center for Humanities, Birkbeck College, London. Among his numerous publications are The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieślowski Between Theory and Post-Theory and The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.”