[This post contains spoilers]
Watching a film like Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique on the wide screen at the Astor Theatre is truly one of life’s great joys, and one of the reasons I keep going back into darkened cinemas for more. There are many types of films one can like a helluva lot, but films like this embody what is most important to me about the medium.
Kieslowski doesn’t use a great number of words to convey a narrative. With sparse dialogue, magnificent visuals, sound and music, he puts together a story – full of ambiguity and uncertainty, allowing our imagination or personal projections to fill in the gaps. His work could be considered spiritual, metaphysical, existential, political, romantic or atheistic depending on the outlook of the viewer. There’s possibly a little of each of these sprinkled throughout his work, but primarily what I find in abundance is a deep sense of humanity.
Watching The Double Life as a part of the body of Kieslowski’s films that I’ve seen thus far, it seems abundantly clear to me that there is a common thread of deep humanism. Whether it is his patiently capturing the words and body language of humble workers or hospital patients in his early documentaries or depicting more morally intricate and stylistic scenarios, there is a sense that this is a film-maker who understands the complex nature of human beings, their drives, their struggles and their suffering. If I had to pick one common theme in his work, it is this: the human race is connected through the common experience of struggle.
Connectedness is a theme that comes to the fore in The Double Life in a most sublime, subtle, poetic and evocative manner. Two girls, born at around the same time, in different places, they look the same and follow a similar life path. Not only are they practically twins, they are almost the same person. Intuitively aware of the unknown and unseen existence of the other, they feel unalone in the world. When woe befalls one, the other feels the loss and grieves for something or someone she knows not.
This is not an original theme – the Superman comics of my teens spoke of everyone in the world having an alter ego, an identical double somewhere. Kieslowski raises this comical idea to a transcendent and haunting design that draws one into its exploration of a fantastical and emotionally wrenching reality. Woven throughout the narrative is the recurring Kieslowski theme of chance or destiny. One catches a glimpse of the other, but they do not meet.
Irène Jacob plays both Veronique and Veronika. There are devices that reappear in the Three Colours trilogy, particularly Red, in which Jacob played the main character. There is the old woman, who in the trilogy is attempting to place a bottle in the bin. In The Double Life we see a similar character (twice) but in a slightly different situation. Jacob’s characters respond with genuine concern for the women’s welfare.
Politics often plays a part in Kieslowski’s films, sometimes subtly (as in his early documentaries) or overtly (as in Blind Chance). One of the most critical moments in The Double Life takes place with a political protest as the backdrop, with running youth and lines of riot police. No explanation of the event is given.
Nor is the significance of the flasher ever made clear. It seems that Kieslowski is inserting details from life (perhaps things he has seen or read about) at unexpected moments – just like life itself. Some of them – like the flasher – seem to have no significance other than that of the moment. It serves to add understated drama, humour and surprise in an already rich story. Expect the unexpected. Other details appear that are not explained: the dour-faced woman from the Polish audition passes momentarily at the train station (another recurring device). We see her expression, but hear not a word from her. We can only imagine what she must be thinking.
A poignant moment in the film occurred when Alexandre (the puppeteer, played by Philippe Volter) explained why there were two dolls (metaphorically, two Véroniques). They damage easily, he says, so one is needed as a backup. I don’t think this was intended literally in relation to Véronique, but rather as a cryptic metaphor.
Part of the beauty of the film is that the performances are so natural. It all looks so effortless and the film flows fluidly. The characters are all so interesting, even the small fleeting roles like the orchestra conductor, the fathers of both women and the bent old woman are captivating.
The Double Life immediately preceded the Three Colours trilogy, and is very similar to the trilogy both thematically and stylistically. These four films could almost be a Four Colours quadrilogy, the colour of The Double Life being yellow (though the colour green is more noticeable as a secondary colour on the DVD version than on the big screen). The use of a colour theme in this film seemed to be stronger than the use of any colour of the trilogy, and was reminiscent of the production design of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (perhaps Aronofsky took some inspiration from this film).
It seems that Kieslowski was developing themes and ideas that he further built on over subsequent films. Just like David Lynch’s
All four of these films were also co-written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz and all but White were edited by Jacques Witta. A common aesthetic in these films can be at least partially attributed to a consistent creative team. Three Colours: Blue remains my favourite Kieslowski film, and close to my all-time favourite film. The Double Life of Véronique is not far behind; I consider it on a par with the rest of the trilogy.
The Double Life of Véronique is a film that is hard to categorise: it could be considered a mystery, drama or a thriller. It is erotic, existential and metaphysical. It’s an important work by an important film-maker with timeless appeal. It was great to see it on the Astor’s large screen and I look forward to discovering more of Kieslowski’s work.