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.


Jake said...

You've brilliantly hit upon the point of The Double Life of Veronique, which is to avoid looking for the point altogether. I love the various readings I come across -- particularly the political allegory explanation and the "spiritual Short Cuts" depiction of universal connection (which hedges closest to what I would say is its thrust if pressed) -- but Kieslowski has the remarkable ability to make a complex, meditative film whose pleasures lie chiefly in simply sitting back and letting the images wash over you and transport you.

In my own review of this, I kept doubling back on myself, perhaps somewhat fittingly, because I constantly saw something I wanted to talk about, but because so much of its power was simply in its existence on the screen and not what meaning I could assign to it, I started writing in circles. The original draft may have ended up my longest review, but I'd sucked any enjoyment out of reading about the film, and seriously hampered my own thrill that comes with any revisiting of this sublime work so I chopped it down considerably.

I apologize for dumping so many comments on you at once, but I don't know what took me so long to check out this blog, given how many of my favorite bloggers' blogrolls it graces, and I think your writing is stellar. Oh, and to return to Veronique, if you have a Blu-Ray player, I'd strongly recommend getting the region-free BD put out by Artificial Eye in the UK. It fixes the color correction on Criterion's otherwise-sterling release and even updates the short movies included in the CC SDVD to 720p. Sadly, it lacks the commentary, but I've never really felt the need to search for the concrete meaning behind Kieslowski's imagery anyway. I got it for 8.99 pounds, which even when converted and added to a shipping charge comes out to around 20 bucks.

Carson Lund said...

Unfortunately, I don't have a blu-ray player, but I have seen a blu-ray version of it through a PlayStation, and the image absolutely glistens.

You're definitely correct that it's a hard film to write about. It has too many magical moments to encapsulate effectively into one descriptive sentence. That's why I can't stress enough that this is simply a film to see, at all costs. You'll never love an actress more than Irene Jacob.

Carson Lund said...

Oh, and no problem about leaving comments. It's always great to get a new, passionate reader.