Krzysztof Kieslowski meditates on the mystery of time and space through compelling images and subplots in this wonderful work of timeless, lyrical beauty. Jacob is perfectly cast, and Preisner's music enhances film mood nicely.
Sometimes a director's first instinct is not necessarily the best. I learned to my great surprise that the late great Polish filmmaker, Krzysztof Kieslowski, had originally chosen Andie McDowell to star in his first Western European film, The Double Life of Véronique. McDowell had verbally agreed to do it, but due to his producer's delay in signing the contract, the deal was lost. McDowell ended up accepting an offer from a major film studio instead.
With no actress to play his Véronique, Kieslowski rethought his initial choice of an American for the role of a French girl, musing on the possible negative reactions from the French to such a misguided, to say the least, bit of casting. In the end, he wisely decided on the twenty-four-year-old, French-speaking Swiss actress, Irène Jacob, whose only role in a feature film had been a brief one in the heartbreaking Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987) of the late Louis Malle.*
I, for one, am forever grateful to Kieslowski's producer, Leonardo de la Fuente, for his sin of omission. The casting of the unknown Jacob could not have been more inspired, since the movie's success rests heavily on the appeal and credibility of the lead performer.
The Double Life of Véronique (1991) remains among my personal favorites to this day, despite the many puzzling aspects to this beautiful, mystical film. I suppose the work speaks to me at a deeper, subconscious level that pays little heed to the logic and literalness of the material world in which we live.
Besides the obvious plot premise about the Polish Veronika and the French Véronique, two identical-looking young women who share the exact same birthday and a few other significant details in life, we also have here a wealth of metaphysical and poetic images, incidents and ideas to marvel at and ponder. Some are fleeting, some recurrent, all are thoughtful and intriguing.
Plot Highlights, Sans Spoilers.
The first third tells the tale of Veronika, a young student living in Poland. She harbors an unspecified heart condition, seeking no medical attention for it. She simply continues to live a full life as usual. We sense an inner joy in Veronika that is evident in her relationships with her father (Wladyslaw Kowalski), aunt (Halina Gryglaszewska) and lover, Antek (Jerzy Gudejko), even in her lovely singing. At one point, she does express a feeling of "not being alone." Her arrestingly unusual soprano catches the ear of a choir director (Kalina Jedrusik) who recruits her for a concert and gives the untrained young singer voice lessons. Will Veronika's choice to sing prove to be the best for her?
In France, meanwhile, Véronique apparently shares a similar cardiac condition with Veronika, but unlike her Polish counterpart, she does see a cardiologist for it. When she feels a sudden, inexplicable pain, does it result from her heart problem? Or could it be her intuition about someone, perhaps a twin of hers whom she vaguely feels exists? Why does she decide to discontinue her singing lessons?
Much earlier, the two women sort of cross paths in Poland. At a public square Veronika suddenly spots a woman who looks like her--it is Véronique--among a group of tourists boarding a bus stopped a little distance away. While Veronika is transfixed by what she sees, Véronique remains oblivious, busily snapping away with her camera at the demonstrators being dispersed by the police. In the process she accidentally captures Veronika on film.
Véronique's life differs from Veronika's, going beyond the coziness of Veronika's own, into the realm of the mystical. It changes in ways unforeseen after she witnesses a children's puppet show at the school where she teaches music.
The puppet show portrays a moving story of a death and resurrection of sorts. Alexandre (Philippe Volter), the puppeteer, will figure significantly in Véronique's life. Instead of fear about the odd things that she has seen and experienced, Véronique keeps an open mind about them, and her curiosity takes her down unknown paths that may or may not lead to resolutions.
Lots of Questions, and No Pat Answers.
Depending on how one approaches it, this film may either confound and frustrate you, or draw you into its wonderfully moving and mysterious world of questions, a few answers, and yet more questions. A viewer used to having all things explained and neatly tied up by the film's end will only find disappointment.
In my case, the enchanting atmosphere created by Kieslowski had me spellbound for all of its hundred or so minutes. Although the plot hews superficially to a linear pattern, Kieslowski's tale also plays with temporal and spatial topography, highlighted especially in the exposition of Alexandre's link with Véronique.
The chance events and coincidences here may require a greater than usual leap of faith, but Kieslowski's modern fable strives not to unravel the mysteries, only to present them as such to us. Perhaps he merely wishes to inspire wonder at and acknowledgement of such phenomena in the viewer. At least, do we not sometimes think about the possibility of a twin of ours existing somewhere out there in this vast universe?
Kieslowski's Personal Yet Universal Film Par Excellence.
An unconventional plot of this sort demands a strongly charismatic lead performance for it to appeal to viewers. Contrary to the completely selfish navel-gazing indulged in by some non-mainstream filmmakers, Kieslowski understands and acknowledges the audience's needs vis-à-vis the auteur's vision.* His fortunate choice of actors here addresses this issue admirably.
The luminous Irène Jacob does wonders with her difficult double role as Veronika/Véronique, which requires her presence in nearly every frame of film. Guided by the sure hand of Kieslowski, Jacob projects an authentic goodness and innocence, coupled with a palpable sensuality and sensitivity. For the viewer to surrender to the aura of mystery created around Veronika/Véronique, he or she must believe in her as a person--two different persons, in fact. This formidable task Jacob accomplishes with seeming ease, giving us a lively Veronika, and a thoughtful Véronique.
I seriously doubt whether Andie MacDowell would have proven to be as perfect a Véronique as Jacob would turn out to be. I've always detected a certain tautness and self-absorption in her onscreen persona that might evoke less sympathy for the character than Jacob does.
Philippe Volter (The Music Teacher, 1988; The Five Senses, 1999; in photo on left), although not handsome in the narrow Hollywood sense, brings a subtle, intelligent sexiness and depth to each role he plays. Here his Alexandre is serious and slightly distant. Alexandre's sketchy character allows an interesting uncertainty to color the true nature of his relationship with Véronique.
To tell the breathtakingly beautiful and poignant puppet story, Kieslowski brought the amazingly talented puppeteer Bruce Schwartz out of self-imposed retirement. His not-to-be-missed little show comprises only one of several moments of pure magic in the film.
Zbigniew Preisner wrote the stunning and elegant film score. The delicate puppet show piece will stay with you long after the film has ended. So will Veronika's exquisite vocal piece sung during the concert. Preisner's fictitious 18th century "Dutch alter ego," Van den Budenmayer, receives credit for the latter work.
Kieslowski's use of a yellow lens filter gives a warm, lovely hue of orange to the picture, accentuated with swaths of soft shadow and darkness. Kieslowskiesque touches fill the screen, in which glass objects figure prominently: the passing landscape seen through a glass ball; Veronika's reflection in the window pane; a teabag floating lazily in a steaming glass of water, etc. Such images possess a kind of poetic beauty that never fails to move me.
To be sure, The Double Life of Véronique may not be everyone's cup of tea. On the first viewing the film might mystify; a second, third, or further viewing may both deepen and illuminate the mysteries. After seeing this for perhaps the sixth time, I continue to pick up a few more details that had escaped my notice before. I understand more clearly the meaning of some elements, yet remain perplexed by others. Seeking complete clarification of every little bit might be a futile exercise. Perhaps some things simply have no explanation--they just are, and that's all there is to it.
Alternatively, might certain events happen for some purpose--to bring us to a particular point in life, and whether this point might be of life-changing significance, or merely a moment of pure joy may not be important? Kieslowski certainly thought so.*
Véronique will appeal to audiences receptive to a different filmviewing experience, one more instinctive, perhaps, and challenging to our traditional concepts of time and space. A literal-minded attitude can only diminish appreciation of the film's loveliness. Like Véronique, the viewer must rid him or herself of preconceptions, and succumb to this seductive, lyrical cinematic journey through the two lives of Véronique. It will be an experience more stimulating to the mind and heart than is usually expected of a mere optical illusion running at twenty-four frames per second. Very highly recommended to anyone who cares just a bit more about good films.
*Information taken from Kieslowski on Kieslowski translated and edited by Danusia Stok, (c) 1993.
Naturally, the dialogue in the scenes shot in Poland are in Polish, and those in France are in French, all with English subtitles. NOW AVAILABLE on DVD and BLU-RAY! PLEASE GO TO LINKS BELOW!