When Krzysztof Kie?lowski’s The Double Life of Véronique was first screened at Cannes, in 1991, the critical reception was rapturous. Georgia Brown declared in the Village Voice, “Anything I say about [the film] is merely a labored minuet danced around my own ecstatic response.” Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times commented, “I believe we are being hypnotized in The Double Life of Véronique . . . How else to explain the ability of a French-Polish film with a nonsensical plot premise . . . to enthrall and enchant us like no European film in recent history?” As Andrews enthusiastically but warily suggests, Kie?lowski’s film has the capacity to mesmerize. It invites analysis, yet it also encourages us, in its creation of a nebulous, numinous world, to bypass critical inquiry and to respond on a sensual, emotional, or even—if we are so inclined—spiritual level.
The Double Life of Véronique is remarkable for sustaining a delicate combination of simplicity and unfathomable complexity—or at least the impression of such complexity. Kie?lowski defined the film’s subject matter to interviewer Danusia Stok thus: “The realm of superstitions, fortune-telling, presentiments, intuition, dreams, all this is the inner life of a human being, and all this is the hardest thing to film.” But he recognized the riskiness of the undertaking: this story, he commented elsewhere, “deals with things you can’t name. If you do, they seem trivial and stupid.” Put simply, the film explores this premise: two young women, one French, one Polish, are for all intents and purposes one and the same, and yet irreducibly different. The narrative is also, of course, an ingenious response to a professional challenge: how can a Polish director best face the demands of a European coproduction to be shot in his own country and in France?
The narrative, as it develops, is anything but simple. Weronika, the young Polish woman, is by chance—after singing impromptu at a friend’s rehearsal—offered an audition and ultimately a solo part in a concert. Suffering from heart problems, she dies in midrecital, shortly after seeing her doppelgänger in a Kraków square. That double is the French music teacher Véronique; immediately after the death of Weronika, of whose existence she has no inkling, Véronique experiences an uncanny sense of grief and solitude and consequently quits her other career as a singer. She later falls in love with a puppeteer, Alexandre, whose image she sees in a mirror while he is performing at her school.
Véronique receives an anonymous phone call—which fascinates rather than threatens her—during which she hears a snatch of the music that Weronika was singing when she died and that she herself is teaching at school. She also receives a number of mysterious packages, including a cassette of a sound collage. Playing detective, Véronique traces the tape to Paris’s Gare Saint-Lazare, where she finds Alexandre waiting for her. He tells her that the tape was part of an experiment for a novel: he wanted to know whether it was psychologically plausible for a woman to follow such a trail. Offended, Véronique walks out, but he follows her, and they become lovers.
The plot, at least in the French section, seems at once enigmatic—elliptical, even opaque—and contrived. But then, the Alexandre intrigue is explicitly about contrivance. The film, it’s worth noting, does not represent nearly as much of a break with Kie?lowski’s Polish features as it may initially have seemed. While the visual stylization and the European setting are new, the film continues a thread of what could be seen as mysticism, or alternatively, as quasimystical narrative manipulation, in the director’s work. In Blind Chance (1981), three possible outcomes of a banal incident lead a man’s life in three entirely separate directions. In the otherwise seemingly naturalistic No End (1985)—cowritten by Krzysztof Piesiewicz, collaborator on Kie?lowski’s subsequent fictions, The Double Life of Véronique included—a woman receives visitations from her dead husband. And the ten-part Decalogue (1988), based on the Ten Commandments, contemplates fate and the interconnectedness of human lives in a harshly realistic setting.
What vanishes in The Double Life of Véronique, however, is the explicit political dimension. As a documentarian since the mid-1960s, Kie?lowski had exhaustively explored the concrete realities of Communist Poland, but in the early 1990s, he declared a total lack of interest in Polish politics. Significantly, when a demonstration takes place in a Kraków square, Weronika, sunk in her own thoughts, walks in the opposite direction from the crowd. Kie?lowski, too, is thinking about other things: like Weronika, he is literally facing west.
As his dual heroine, Kie?lowski cast Irène Jacob, a largely unknown twenty-four-year-old Swiss actress he had noticed in a small part in Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants; she would later play the lead in Kie?lowski’s final film, Red (1994), the conclusion of his Three Colors trilogy. Partly because she is associated in the viewer’s mind with no previous role, partly because she is on-screen throughout, Jacob comes to be so totally identified with Weronika/Véronique that it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the part.
Intensely focused on Jacob, The Double Life of Véronique looks like one of those films designed expressly to make us fall in love with its star—an intention felt from the very first close-up of Weronika, in the rain, staying behind to sing alone as the choir disperses around her, her face radiant with delight. This shot defines Weronika both as a spiritual being and as a woman susceptible to earthly ecstasy; her embrace with her boyfriend, Antek, directly afterward seems an extension of this moment. That capacity of Weronika’s marks Véronique, too, as an acutely feeling organism, a woman susceptible to grief, liable to fall in love, and seeming to feel only the thinnest membrane separating her from the sensuous world. Although there are moments when Weronika/Véronique seems prone to a cloying chirpiness—arising partly from Weronika’s dubbing into Polish—Jacob displays a vibrancy and sustained alertness that energize the screen. Her performance won her the best actress award at Cannes.
As emotional beings, Weronika and Véronique are at once sexual and desexualized. Both women are sexually active, yet their truly intense ecstasies come in nonsexual situations: few cinematic images of female pleasure are as pronounced as Weronika’s face in the rain, or as that swooping camera movement over Véronique when she gets up after reading on her bed. Such images make the two women appear less like adults than like presexual children, subject to the authority, influence, and manipulation of older men: Alexandre the puppeteer, two beloved fathers, Weronika’s venerable conductor. And both women, like Jacob, literally come under the authority of the father figure who is Kie?lowski himself—making both the actress and her twin characters disturbingly akin to the Véronique puppets seen at the end.
One of the film’s most compelling aspects is its explicit self-reflexivity, of which the marionettes are the most extreme and, it must be said, most arch manifestation. The two women at different points twist threads around their fingers; Véronique stretches one over a printout of her EKG result, as if tracing an equivalence between her and Weronika’s life lines. Alexandre has written a story about a thread, and reels Véronique in on a thread of intrigue, sending her a tape that is effectively a sonic script, or a score, for their eventual meeting.
Equally self-reflexive is the film’s visual theme of containment and filtering. Its opening image is of sky and earth reversed, seen by Weronika as a child, held upside down by her mother. Later, the adult Weronika sees the world inverted in a transparent ball in which stars float; in the same scene, her train window distorts the landscape outside, seeming to open it up in small folds. Kie?lowski and director of photography S?awomir Idziak consistently use a yellow-green filter that fills the world with a seemingly benign, autumnal glow. Kie?lowski claimed that this choice of color was a matter of visual contrast, determined by the dominant gray of the film’s locations, Kraków and Clermont-Ferrand. Yet overall, the golden filtering transcends any obvious motivation. The brief credit sequence shows a prefigurement of Weronika in the Kraków square, as if the moment were suspended outside time, captured in a distorting lens. Later, when Véronique receives the mysterious phone call, we see a reprise of Weronika’s death, an image dimly seen through an amorphous body of red-brown light or liquid, as if preserved in an amniotic haze. While most events in the film are witnessed or experienced by one of the two heroines, here we cannot be sure who sees these images, or what the filter is that they pass through. At such moments, the film’s precarious realism collapses, and a sense of the mystical or metaphorical imposes itself.
Kie?lowski denied that there were any metaphors in his films: “For me, a bottle of milk is simply a bottle of milk; when it spills, it means milk’s been spilled. Nothing more.” Yet he also confessed that he aspired to those moments when a film manages to escape from literalism. If The Double Life of Véronique spurs us to search for meaning in a maze of fragmentary significations, it is perhaps because Kie?lowski made the film in just such a spirit of pursuit, quite simply in the sense of teasing out narrative shape. By Kie?lowski’s estimation, he and editor Jacques Witta prepared around twenty rough cuts of The Double Life of Véronique, some more narratively transparent, others considerably more opaque. One version, for example, concentrated more on the subplot—vestigial in the finished film—in which Véronique agrees to play co-respondent in a friend’s divorce hearing. In another version, this intrigue disappeared completely. Kie?lowski even considered preparing multiple versions of the film—one for every screen it played on. Finally, the Double Life of Véronique we have is one among a multitude of possible versions. It is this incompleteness, this sense of the provisional and arbitrary, that finally ensures the film’s sense of mystery and saves it from the sometimes oppressive weight of narrative authority that overburdens Three Colors.
Kie?lowski inarguably achieved his desired escape from literalism in The Double Life of Véronique and Three Colors. Yet in the long run, cinema culture in the nineties proved to be more receptive to literalism than to any suggestion of metaphysical resonance. Significantly, Kie?lowski’s final film, Red, widely expected to receive the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1994, was trumped by Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, a film structured similarly to the Three Colors trilogy but in which the play of interlinked destinies was proudly exposed as a gratuitous effect of narrative game playing. This moment might be seen as nineties cinephilia’s turn away from the poetic-art-cinema tradition exemplified by Kie?lowski’s last films. Indeed, despite the reverence accorded Kie?lowski toward the end of his career and since his death in 1996, his later work appears to have had surprisingly little direct influence—notwithstanding two unremarkable attempts by Tom Tykwer and Danis Tanovic to film parts of another planned Kie?lowski-Piesiewicz trilogy, Heaven and Hell, respectively. Kie?lowski’s nearest inheritors, arguably, are the Mexican team of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga, notably in 21 Grams, a mosaic narrative that explicitly speculates on the nature of the soul.
History may have sidelined The Double Life of Véronique, but that is not to say the film has not lasted. In its teasing, fragmentary nature, it may well outlast the Three Colors trilogy, with its somber attempt at a definitive encapsulation of the human predicament at the end of the European twentieth century. The Double Life of Véronique retains the kind of mystery that subsists when the search for meaning and shape is undertaken with the seriousness and pleasure of game playing. It is the sense of pervasive trompe l’oeil, of the conjurer’s—rather than the puppeteer’s—art, that makes the film endure as a spellbinding experience, as well as a perplexing one.
Jonathan Romney is the film critic for the Independent on Sunday. He also writes on film for Sight & Sound, Screen International, and Film Comment. This piece was originally published in the Criterion Collection’s 2006 edition of The Double Life of Véronique.