Every decade, one director comes along who, although perhaps not the greatest filmmaker working at the time, nevertheless creates a run of films that define its aesthetic capacities and artistic fearlessness. Michael Powell dominated the '40s, Nicholas Ray the '50s. Godard changed the face of cinema in the '60s with his magnificent string of films that broke the medium apart, re-assembled it, then deconstructed it once more. (It is difficult to say who fit the bill for the '70s and '80s, the former because so many astonishing filmmakers came to prominence, the latter because so few did). Krzysztof Kieslowksi died in 1996, yet he more than any other director encapsulated the artistic triumphs of a decade that saw the resurgence, however brief and quickly commodified, of art in the cineplex. His Trois Coleurs trilogy comprised three individual masterpieces, and though his ten-part imagining of the Ten Commandments, The Decalogue, came out in native Poland in the '89, it did not reach other countries until the early '90s.
The Double Life of Véronique, his first true foray into the decade, is, in a single film, every bit the triumph of the multi-entry behemoths that surround it. In fact, judging by cinematographer Sławomir Idziak's gorgeous use of golden-green hues in his photography of Poland and France, Véronique might easily fit in as the "fourth" entry in the Three Colors trilogy: Yellow. Like the trilogy, it shows the manner in which all life is connected, albeit in even more abstract a fashion. Short Cuts and Magnolia this is not; for Kieslwoski, the ties that bind are intangible and universal, not interestingly coincidental.
From the opening shot, of a skyline inverted to show the evening sky at the bottom of the frame as if the sea overlooking the "horizon" of the Polish city as a mother instructs her child to look for a star. This image is recalled later when Weronika (Irène Jacob) bounces a transparent ball with little stars embedded in the polymer, which Kieslowski frames in a close-up to peer through its distorting plastic. Along with the numerous shots of objects in mirrors and glasses -- including one incredibly framed shot of a man drawing, his project blurred in front of him yet clear in microscopic form in one of the lenses of his glasses -- this imagery gives the film an air of oneiric ethereality.
Kieslowski spends the first 25 minutes or so in Poland following Weronika. A casually upbeat and personable woman, Weronika impresses us first with her beauty, but attention shifts almost immediately onto her jaw-dropping singing voice. It's a voice meant for the stage, yet it has an unorthodox quality even to those without knowledge in classical singing. A teacher recognizes her peculiar skill and arranges an audition with a venerable, old conductor, who gives her a solo in his upcoming performance.
Though ostensibly happy, Weronika occasionally feels a disconnect from the world; when a flasher exposes himself to her, Weronika barely processes the moment. At one point, she tells her father, "I have a strange feeling. I feel that I'm not alone," having previously looked at a photograph of herself with curiosity, as if looking at another person. Confessing this feeling, Weronika appears to look off into nothingness in that way that we all do when we imagine we're someone else in another place. Yet Weronika really does have a döppelganger, whom she spots boarding a tourist bus. This identical woman does not notice Weronika, but the Pole cannot focus on anything but this reflection, standing helplessly as the person she envisions in the back of her mind rides off to the next photo-worthy spot in Kraków. Shortly thereafter, Weronika, who'd previously expressed a mysterious pain in her chest, performs her solo at a concert but suffers a greater jolt of pain, collapses halfway through and dies. Like Antonia in The Tales of Hoffmann, Weronika pays the ultimate price for her talent.
At the moment mourners finish throwing dirt on her casket, Kieslowski cuts to France. Via a shot warped and distorted as if filmed through a crystal ball, the director introduces us to Véronique in the middle of sex with her boyfriend. Suddenly, Véronique massages her side as if hit by a minor pain, and she tells her lover that she inexplicably feels a pang of sadness and loss. With the split nature of the film clearly aiding Véronique -- she receives nearly thrice the screen-time as her foil -- Kieslowski tricks us into thinking that the Frenchwoman will discover the link between the two and then uncover some sort of explanation for the existence of two like women.
But that is not his way. Kieslowski does not fashion The Double Life of Véronique into a mystery, though a significant part of its pull is undeniably its mysterious element. Rather, he resets the film, re-establishing the first 25 minutes almost as a prequel, or at the very least a helpful mini-guide to the self-reflexive callbacks and reinterpretations of its initial images. Jacob, then known only for her first role, a minor part, in Au revoir les enfants, if at all, handles the change effortlessly. Véronique is, as its title would suggest, a film about its protagonist and the differences between her two lives.
Some of the difference between the two involve their diverging life paths. After feeling that tinge of sadness at Weronika's death, Véronique speaks to her music teacher the next day to announce that she can no longer seek lessons. The tutor reacts like a revolutionary denied a human right, railing that the waste of such talent should be considered a legitimate crime (it may well be in France). Véronique gives no concrete reason for quitting, and maybe she doesn't have one. Besides, if you based such a decision on a subconscious vision of your döppelganger dying for the singing talent they share, would you tell anyone?
More substantive, however, are the differences in the people themselves. Where Weronika appeared to be mostly happy save for some moments of disconnection, Véronique's mannerisms suggest the opposite. She teaches music to schoolchildren rather than pursue her dreams like Weronika -- a cheeky allusion to the old maxim, "Those who can't do, teach," perhaps? -- and moves through the world without calling attention to herself, despite her beauty. Happiness is as rare for her as the opposite is for Weronika, and her joy comes from insular activities like reading where Weronika's comes from reveling in the world around her.
As he was in The Decalogue and Blue, composer Zbigniew Preisner, under the guise of fictional 18th-century composer Van den Budenmayer, plays a pivotal role in La double vie de Véronique. The aria that "kills" Weronika, in the unfinished concerto that would later be played in its entirety in Blue, is the same Van den Budenmayer piece that Véronique teaches to her class. Preisner's music even serves as the mechanism that sparks the second major turn in Véronique's life. As she sits among her schoolchildren watching a marionette show -- itself scored by a gorgeously lyrical piano composition -- Véronique hears snatches of the concerto in her head when she gazes upon the puppeteer, Alexandre (Philippe Volter). Later, he calls her anonymously, and she hears the music in the background (or the background of her head) once more. The music exerts a pull on the woman, leading her to tell her father that she's in love without meeting the man.
Alexandre comes to represent the manipulative qualities of all the men in Weronika and Véronique's lives, tricking Véronique into meeting him out of attraction as well as his growing obsession with her double nature. He even fashions marionettes after the two (the film's most blatantly obvious metaphor) and drafts a story after Véronique's feelings of double lives. As he spitballs ideas such as the notion that one woman burned her hand as a toddler, while the other nearly touched the stove in her own home a few days later, only to pull away as if she'd already learned her lesson, Véronique looks at him with faint recognition, as if something similar occurred in her own life. Or someone else's.
By this point the search for an definite interpretation, whatever that may entail, might normally drive a more serious filmgoer insane. What is the meaning of the inverted skyline and the toy ball that recalls it, or the flasher, or even of the color tinting (which Kieslowski and Idziak supposedly used to offset the natural gray of the dull Polish buildings and the look stuck)? Surely there's a point to all this? A popular reading suggests that Véronique serves as a political allegory, with the two döppelgangers each representing their respective country: Weronika, the Pole, spots her French double, who is too busy taking empty photographs of all the sights without truly paying attention to what she's capturing -- only at the end does she notice a frame containing a her that isn't her. Véronique doesn't realize that her spitting image is right in front of her, but Weronika can think of nothing but this liberated version of herself. For, if Weronika truly does represent Poland, then her death signifies the sacrifice of Poland to the Soviet Union to ensure Allied victory in World War II. Her death "warns" Véronique into quitting her musical aspirations, just as Poland's sacrifice helped to ensure the salvation of France, which only noted that something felt missing once the Iron Curtain fell over Eastern Europe and divided the continent. Such a reading is valid, certainly, but Kieslowski had expended his political fire by 1991, having long before purged himself with his early, politically motivated documentaries. Whatever allegorical content exists in the film, even if intended, likely is not the main thrust of the picture.
Perhaps, then, it simply points out the unnoticed threads that connect the world; both characters fiddle with threads, even, twirling them around their fingers, and Véronique even lays a string over her EKG readout, pulling it taut at one moment as if placing Weronika's flat-line over her vitals readouts. Or maybe it's all an ode to Irène Jacob, or at least intended to be a start vehicle for whomever won the part. Though the film marked the first collaboration between director and actress, the nature of the role and the loving way Kieslowski captures her perfect face in pure shots like that of Weronika singing in the rain all seem tailor-made to turn her into a star.
That's what's so strange and wonderful about Kieslowski's cinema. In the '90s, the Polish director's corpus likely struck many as the textbook definition of arthouse fare, yet it's not right to call him pretentious. For one thing, he conveys a genuine intelligence that is never outpaced by his abstraction. Second, he's not so interested in meaning for all of his shots so much as the emotions they inhabit and the ones they might create in the audience. He fills The Double Life of Véronique with so many small, beautiful details, from Weronika bouncing her ball into a ceiling to make dust fall around her like rain to the final shot of Véronique caressing a tree, that what might seem an obtuse layering of symbols instead becomes a heartfelt mapping of images that capture the ephemeral nature of life, paradoxically chosen with utmost care. As music plays such a large role in the film, it's no surprise that that Kieslowski manifests this dichotomy through sounds as well, though not Preisner's score. In one scene, Véronique carries a set of chimes around the music building, their clanging soft and gentle even as they slam about in discordant cacophony. As usual, Kieslowski leaves elements that might explain what's going on out of the picture: he cares not for the hows, nor even really the whys. His is cinema of the moment, metaphysical in its transcendence of corporeality. He aims for the heart, not the mind. Besides, who could see the two shots that most convey the women's happiness, of a glorious close-up of Weronika singing with unbridled ecstasy in the rain as everyone else scatters for cover and a sudden, thrilling crane shot of Véronique rising out of bed after putting down a book, and call Kieslowski pretentious?
After all these words, what's fundamental about The Double Life of Véronique is that it's beautiful to look at, a normally casual dismissal intended to be the sole attribute of an otherwise forgettable film. But Kieslowski captures the joy of beauty in ways that so few filmmakers can even approach. It is by no means futile to search for meaning in his work, but their basic pleasures play to the senses. Kieslowski walks the line between simplicity and complexity through his abstraction: do we search for the meaning of each image, or can we bring ourselves to stop wracking our brains and accept their overwhelming beauty and the strangely captivating and engaging quality they have?
There is no magic in The Double Life of Véronique, or not of the visible variety, anyway. It contains images that we know to be real despite the artificiality of the color tinting and self-reflexive use of filters, yet those touches, coupled with the elliptical nature of the director's storytelling, suggest a universality that humans cannot yet see, as if the fate that determines the heroines' paths allow us to see its process. He allows us to see the world that, like Véronique, we're too caught up inside to properly pay attention to. Maybe it all adds up to zero; Kieslowski's films exist in a world where poetry is allowed to exist for its own sake. Actually, they drift closer to mainstream entertainment than anyone would care to admit, in that they ultimately serve as distractions. Where Kieslowski differs from those who choke theaters with blockbusters, however, is that he does not distract us from life; he distracts us with it.