DVD Review Of The Double Life Of Véronique

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/24/07


  The Double Life Of Véronique (La Double Vie De Véronique) is the 1991 French-Polish film by Krzysztof Kieslowski, written by himself and Krzysztof Piesiewicz that was the presage for the greatness of the Three Colors Trilogy (Blue, White, and Red), and was an international sensation at both the Cannes and New York film festivals, for here is where the gilt-hazed camera work of Slawomir Idziak, the music of Zbigniew Preisner (although slyly credited to the fictional Van den Budenmayer in the film- a running joke within Kieslowski’s later works), and Kieslowski’s own vision first touched greatness- even if it is a conditional greatness, more of sensuality than sense. The film has been rhapsodized by international film critics as Kieslowski’s ‘coming out’ film, but one can see it is clearly a bridge between the direction he was headed with his tv series The Decalogue, and where he ended up in the Trilogy.

  The film is not linear, which is the first thing that separates it from the typical Hollywood, and even contemporary European, films, but there is a cloying coyness to the film’s reliance on synchronicities and contrivances that is more pronounced than in the Trilogy, where the errors Kieslowski made here were modulated. A film, or any work of art, that has a number of interpretations is exciting, but one with unlimited interpretations is a cheat, and reeks of narrative laziness. The Double Life Of Véronique falls just short of going too far, but the relentless scenes of cogitation for the sake of cogitation- and revealing lead actress Irène Jacob’s lovely face and body, border on the obsessive; which would not be a bad thing, considering a good portion of the film’s tale is on that topic, but the plain fact is that there is nothing new brought to the table on said topic.

  The tale is sparse, with very little dialogue compared to most 97 minute films. Jacob plays Weronika, a Polish girl who’s in Krakow to pursue singing (although Weronika’s speaking and soprano singing voices are really dubbed- the singing voice by Elzbieta Towarnicka) and is on the verge of becoming famous. She has left her lover, her father- who is a widower, and feels something is missing in her life, that another part of herself exists elsewhere. One day, as students protest in the city square, Weronika is headed against the flow and spies a tour bus from France. On the bus she sees Véronique (also played by Jacob), a music teacher. Most critics try to pas them off as doppelgangers, but as the film progresses, the duo seem to have a psychic bond that has long been purported in twins, suggesting that the two women- who are dead ringers, were somehow separated at birth. Véronique does not see Weronika, yet Weronika’s sense of her own intuition is heightened. Then, at a concert, Weronika - who has a weak heart, simply drops dead, less than a half hour into the film, and the camera shot is from her point of view as she collapses to the floor.

  Then we get a shot of the tops of the heads of the audience, as if Weronika’s spirit is fleeing the building. Then we cut to Véronique, mid-coitus, who is suddenly despairing, as if a part of her realizes that Weronika has died. She has no idea why her sadness is borne, but the connection the film’s edits make are undeniable. Her lover is a loser, though, and she too has only her father. Her class takes in a marionette show, and there she meets the puppeteer, a children’s book writer named Alexandre Fabbri (Philippe Volter). Véronique obsesses on him, and declares her love for him before they know each other. Then, mysterious items are sent to Véronique, things that resonate to the viewer of Weronika. There’s telephone calls with Weronika singing, a shoelace and empty cigar box- talk about overdone symbolism!, in the mail (whose date places the film in late 1990)- one Weronika twined about her fingers, then a cassette tape with sounds of a train station, a diner, and a car crash. Véronique figures out where the recording was made and goes there. Alexandre is sending them because he wants to see if a woman can be manipulated for a book he intends to write. Véronique is hurt that she is being manipulated, but oddly seems excited that she was being stalked. This ethical deviance- and all too Hollywood flaw in character, connects to an earlier scene where she tells a friend, going through a divorce, that she’ll lie about having an affair with her husband. Véronique is not as ethereal as Weronika, nor Jacob’s later character in Red, Valentine. Later, we find out he is working on a book with a similar plot to the exterior film he resides in, suggesting not only that he is Kieslowski’s filmic stand-in, but that he may have known Weronika, as well.

  Eventually, they have sex, after they’ve become familiar, switching from the French formal vous (you) to tu (you), and Alexandre comes upon a random photo on the contact sheet of Véronique’s, from her Polish trip, where she accidentally captured Weronika in the square, and she falls to pieces, finally understanding her connection to a greater force, and why she wept when she and her ex-lover were having sex. Then, there’s an ellipsis in time, and Véronique and Alexandre are lovers, she sees him tinkering with two marionettes based on her. He tells her his idea for the book- about two young women, which he’ll call The Double Life Of- , except he’s yet to name the two heroines. Véronique flees, feeling betrayed again, and returns to her father’s home, pauses at a tree outside his front gate, and feels it, for its wood connects her to the two marionettes, and her dead doppelganger (possibly twin?).

  Irène Jacob is as luminous in this film as she is in the later Red. The filters used to get the russet luminosity of this film are all golden, and one can almost imagine this as a prequel to the Three Colors Trilogy- Gold? There is a great cinematographic influence that can be felt from this film on the later film collaborations by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and star Audrey Tautou (Amelie, and especially A Very Long Engagement). Yet, Jacob’s acting is a marvel. It is usually only said of ‘character actors’ (i.e.- average looking actors), that they can act with mere body parts. Jacob is the rare actress with movie star looks that can act with just a flicker of an eye, and she makes Weronika and Véronique distinct characters- beyond hairdos of language. Weronika is more effervescent and intuitive, while Véronique is deeper and more apt to be cautious. Yet, the parallels between their lives go beyond themselves: Weronika’s boyfriend Antek stays in room 287 in a hotel in Krakow, and, later, Véronique stays in a hotel room with the same number, and gets a boyfriend whose first name begins with the same letter. The shoelace that Véronique receives in the mail, from Alexandre, could be the same one Weronika twirls in her hand in her scenes. Then, both women see the same old lady, in Poland and France, walking not far from them. This is the same sort of thing that occurred in the Trilogy, wherein all three films there is an old lady trying to push a bottle into a recycle bin. Weronika even offers to help the old lady she sees, just as Valentine does in Red. There’s also a singing judge from Poland, who snubbed Weronika, who also sees Véronique in France.

  The doubling effects in this film are more subtle than, say Ingmar Bergman’s in Persona. There are constant references to mirrors and reflections. As a child, in the film’s opening moments, we see Weronika looking at the world upside down, while Véronique - as a child, is implore to look more deeply. Later, we see that it is Véronique who possesses a small transparent rubber ball that she looks through while traveling on a train. This causes her to see things upside down, as Weronika seems to see the world. Significantly, although the film open cutting back and forth between the two women, the scenes of Véronique, pre- Weronika’s sighting of her on the tour bus, are all silent. The first sounds Véronique makes in the films are coital grunts and moans, at the moment Weronika dies. The most obvious use of duplicity (in both senses of the word) is when Alexandre shows Véronique the two marionettes. He is not only her lover, but her guide, much as the older figure of Judge Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintingnant), is to her character of Valentine, in Red. He shows her how to control the puppets, as if showing her how to live her life, yet his own continued manipulations, then revealed, push his lover from him, showing not even guides- as surrogates for the God-like director of films, are immune from their own stupidity. Also, Weronika has a stand-in for her mother that Véronique does not- her aunt, who foretells her, ‘All the women in our family die suddenly. Your mother died suddenly, I will die suddenly, and so shall you.’

  The DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, comes in a two disk edition. The film, on Disk One, is in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and looks gorgeous. Unfortunately, there is no English dubbed version, and the DVD comes only with subtitles. This is, however, one of the few films- like Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, that such an oversight can be excused, since its use of multiple languages is part of the film’s story. There are a number of extra features. There is the alternate American ending of the film, which shows Véronique going beyond touching the tree, and embracing her father. The truth is, seeing that end, I’d have known instantly that it was the American version, for the scene is utterly superfluous, as it shows Véronique returning to and hugging her father. We know this is what will occur after the tree, so ending it there, at the tree, is the better cut. Other intriguing extras are three Kieslowski short documentaries: Factory, Hospital, and Railway. There is also a 1958 documentary, The Musicians, by Kieslowski’s filmic idol Kazimierz Karabasz. The big negative on the DVD is the lame commentary by Kieslowski commentator Annette Insdorf, who did the terrible audio commentaries for the Three Colors Trilogy. While Insdorf is certainly knowledgeable, she is far too PC, and tends to overstate the meanings she attaches to things- symbols or plot contrivances. To her, everything is a masterstroke and indication of genius, whereas the film’s negative aspects go unexamined. As example, she tries to explain Véronique’s crying over seeing Weronika’s photo as portending Véronique’s death, due to the legend that seeing a doppelganger augurs death, but clearly she is connecting to her own inexplicable feelings, and their seeming resolution. Similarly, she misses the obvious ending symbolism of the wood of the tree with the double marionettes, instead invoking an absurd idea that she’s seeking the ethereal because trees rise to the sky. Clearly, this is someone who needs grounding in reality.

  Also, there is her over-precious way of enunciating words, especially Kieslowski’s name, trying to make it sound as ‘foreign’ as possible. She also says the words ‘poetry’ and ‘poetic’ so much that I sense, like many of the critics who wrote of this film, she really knows no other words to describe what goes on, neither narratively nor philosophically. Is there poesy in the film? Yes, to a degree, but the film is not a ‘tone poem,’ as many have stated. It is lyrical, and has much more in common with music’s emotionally based responses than poetry’s intellectually based ones. That said, there should be fines imposed on those who loosely use the terms of poetry without any real understanding of the art form. Accordingly, people like Insdorf should be flogged for their commentaries. How she got this commentary gig after her disastrous troika of commentaries on Blue, White, and Red, only highlights the fact that many people involved in the arts are swayed by passion and not reason. Why couldn’t an audio commentary have been done by Jacob?

  Disk Two has a 52 minute documentary called Kieslowski – Dialogue, which has scenes from the film’s making. There is also a half hour long 1966-1988: Kieslowski, Polish Filmmaker, on Kieslowski’s progression from documentarian to fiction filmmaker, through The Decalogue. Then there are three interviews, with cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, composer Zbigniew Preisner, and star Irène Jacob, on aspects of the film they were involved with. There is also a 64 page booklet with essays in it by film critics Jonathan Romney, Slavoj Žižek, Peter Cowie, and Kieslowski himself, from the book Kieslowski On Kieslowski.

  Many critics have read so much nonsense into the film- such as the early death of Weronika absurdly representing Poland’s absorption into the Soviet Bloc- in this most apolitical of films, that such readings only highlight the film’s greatest failure- a lack of coherence. Yes, the film has to be given some latitude, narratively, but open endedness, to a fault, is still a fault. That Kiesloski did not repeat this in his later films is a recognition of this fact, and may explain his near obsessive need for tying up the ends of the Three Colors Trilogy in Red. Such things as how Alexandre got Weronika’s possessions? Could he be the lover that Weronika was leaving Antek for? After all, he’s famous and travels. Thus his later obsession with her twin, when he meets her, would have psychological resonance, as well as explain his stalking and sending of things. One can resist the temptation to figure out every last detail in a film like this, for much does not stand up to intellectual scrutiny, but to not ground the narrative in some bit of internal diegetic reality is to rob the film of its solid foundation.

  The Double Life Of Véronique ultimately misses greatness, if by a hair, because of these flaws- such as its too contrived, and lacking in chemistry, romance, for it often tries to force its implausible mystery at the viewer, rather than letting it evolve more subtly. In this way, its directed ending- even if more mysterious, is actually more in line with the Pulp Fiction sort of storytelling than that in the Three Colors Trilogy, which might explain why The Double Life Of Véronique was highly awarded, whereas Red lost out to Quentin Tarantino’s convoluted yet plot driven film at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. The ending, where Alexandre tells Véronique of his plan for a book similar to the film is simply too much, and such preciousness is a flaw in the screenplay by Kieslowski and Piesiewicz. One wonders what a greater screenwriter, like Bergman, could have done with these ideas. He certainly would have muted some of the obviousness, for even in Persona- another overrated, but greater, film, he does not go so far as to have the two aspects of what could be one person/persona played by a single actress. Thus, the film relies more on its strengths- which are undoubtedly great: the acting of the sensual yet innocent Jacob, and the evocative imagery, where the narrative’s oneiric progression works best in its hermetic cosmos, crafting the dialogue of the two women from silence, even as the camera fixates on the radiant Jacob.

  I wonder if Kieslowski was aware of the scientific studies done on twins separated at birth, and if this fact influenced this film, even to the point that the two women were, indeed, twins- one adopted by a Polish family, and the other by a French family? Such a hint that this might be the case could be evinced through further watchings, which I shall engage in, and which might just raise this slyly intriguing cocktease of a film above the bar for greatness. Until that time, however, I am left with the critical truism that while the narrative interior of a film can get away with not being analyzed too closely, the same cannot always be said for its exterior workings. This is why the film left me with a lack, yet why I also will view it again. Sometimes success and failure can have the same result. Other times not. Just ask Weronika/Véronique.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the NewCritics website.]

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