Friday, July 17, 2009
The Double Life of Veronique (La double vie de Véronique) A Film by Krzysztof Kieslowski (1991)
The Double Life of Veronique is a film that hinges entirely on ineffable qualities: the interconnectedness of humanity, dual personalities, alternative realities, mysticism, sensation, attraction. That Krzysztof Kieslowski manages to meld what are perhaps some of the most difficult themes to convey through cinema into a light, tonally spectacular work of art is in itself an act of miracle. The film is best viewed as a phenomenological experience, an invitation to soak the senses in sight and sound purely, resist cognitive processes and the inevitable urge to deconstruct a linear narrative, and simply engage. It is, then, the fault of Kieslowski's that there does exist a smoke and mirrors act within the core of the film, a jumbled puzzle that requests putting together. At the same time, this puzzle is not so much convoluted as it is grounded in the very patterns of the film, solved best through resistance to the elliptical ebbs and flows.
The film tells an outwardly complex narrative, written by Kieslowski and his longtime script collaborator, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, of two young women who are existential copies of each other. Introduced first is Weronika, a Polish soprano. Weronika is a woman delighted by the simplistic textures of life; indeed, there a few better examples of female ecstasy in cinema as those of Weronika proudly finishing the final note during an outdoor choir practice while rain beats down on her face in close-up, or lifting her head joyfully as dust caroms off the ceiling wherein she deflected her favorite transparent bouncy ball. Furthermore, she has an unexplainable certainty that she is not alone in the world, that her pleasures and pains are being mirrored by someone else, and this notion is validated when she witnesses her doppelgänger boarding a bus in a market square amidst a public riot. Unfortunately, she is invariably discovering sharp pains in her chest, which eventually, when she persists at singing in a performance for a distinguished music school, claims her life.
As a result, Veronique, her French double, quits her singing career. She begins feeling a heavy grief for something which she cannot put a finger on. Her life as a music schoolteacher continues, but it becomes invested with routine because she is far too preoccupied by her otherworldly emotions. When a children's book writer comes to Veronique's school to put on a marionette show, she becomes infatuated by the glimpse she gets of the man via a reflection on the wall beside the stage. Once again, Veronique is able to see and feel that which is invisible to others, and her subsequent love for the puppeteer is a further inquiry into the enigmatic quality of Veronique's character, of her uncommon ability to harbor feelings for those things that she has no concrete certainty of, and of her omnipresent brushes against transcendence.
Both characters are played by Irene Jacob, a young actress who previously had only a minor part in Louis Malle's Au Revoir, Les Enfants. Despite this lack of experience, Jacob shows an amazing ability to imbue her performance with multivalent gazes and quietly expressive physicality, sacred qualities that are most often only discussed when dealing with veteran actors. While she plays two sexually active characters, her true pleasure seems to always come from an outside source, a difficult complexity to convey. Late in the film, when she finally connects with the puppeteer through a nifty sound recording he sent her as a way of testing for a forthcoming novel the psychological likelihood of a complete stranger following a path to another stranger, the two have passionately emotional sex, but Jacob's intense expression seems to be out of the moment, as if she's really using the act as either a way of reciprocating her beliefs in coincidence or even connecting on a higher level with her deceased double (after all, the two make love in the same hotel room that Weronika's boyfriend said he was staying in earlier in the film). Rarely does a character emote so profoundly, and perhaps never have I felt so much love for a two-dimensional person as I do for Irene Jacob in The Double Life of Veronique.
Kieslowski and his cinematographer, Slawomir Idziak, the cameraman for his visually enticing A Short Film About Killing, are constantly finding innovative ways to emphasize both the mystical worlds of Weronika and Veronique and the inherent self-reflexivity of a film with such a title. Most discernibly, the film has a warm, soothing color palette of olive greens and deep reds. The colors rarely have specific physical beginning and ending points on screen, but rather flow together like liquids. The most telling example of this fluidity comes in an abstract shot that reimagines Weronika's death aside an amorphous red haze. In contrast, the exterior shots of Polish streets have a dullness in response to the green filter, as if the life has been sucked out of them. Such emptiness is not as extreme as it is in A Short Film About Killing, but it nonetheless provides a coldness to compliment Weronika's impending death. Also, glass becomes a central motif in the film, with the ponderous images of Weronika and Veronique frequently reflected against windows to suggest the more faint replica of themselves. Then there is the repetitious use of the aforementioned opaque bouncy ball, which reflects the world as in a silver globe. The camerawork has an impressive elasticity, jumping from eye-catching tableaux shots to abstract, dynamic micro images. Finally, the sound is designed to amplify minor details, completing the magnificent aesthetic which manages to achieve a sensually heightened world.
Kieslowski's film, though, when it comes down to it, does not need to be analyzed too thickly. It is determinedly metaphysical, and it curiously succeeds at transmitting the ineffable feelings of the unknown, of the indescribable attractions we all have towards others, and of an entirely separate reality existing on the opposite side of a thin piece of glass. Although it contains an occasionally contrived plot point (the ability of Veronique's friend to systematically remember that the puppeteer was a children's book writer and that she even owns one of his books), the overall rhythm it forges is too powerful to resist. Most importantly, it is a stunningly beautiful, palpably sensual piece of work, and one of the few masterpieces I dare to name.