The Double Life of Véronique

The Double Life of Véronique ★★★★½

The Criterion Challenge, 68/100
1991 Ranked

Sometimes, watching a film late at night as one struggles to keep their eyes open, practically forcing themselves to watch something as they drift away to sleep is a disservice. It is a disservice to the film and to the viewing experience. Yet, when it comes to The Double Life of Veronique, it may very well be the best modern viewing condition for Kieslowski’s film. A hypnotic, dream-like, and kaleidoscopic work that seems to be both happening and not, while the characters seem to blend and weave within one another, falling asleep and watching a dreamy work may be even more hypnotic tha even Kieslowski intended, enhancing the feeling and emotion given off by the film while pushing off the inherent desire to make sense of a work. Of course, themes such as identity, perspective, purpose, and political strife still rise to the surface, but Kieslowski’s camera work and Irene Jacob’s dreamy performance wind up blending together and creating a symphony of feeling and confusion that can be best conjured by the half-asleep mind. As Irene Jacob lives as Weronika in Krakow and as Veronique in Paris, the line where their lives meet is somewhat blurred via the similarities in their characters - both refined, musicians (one sings, other teaches), they are linked by one composer in particular, they float in-and-out of relationships, they both visit one relative whose home have a “red room” amidst the sea of gold in the rest of the place, and they both wind up in Krakow during a protest - to the point that it becomes hard to distinguish what is happening to who. In a way, this is the perfect feeling to have as, for the women, it is subconsciously just as challenging to distinguish.

One of the defining qualities of The Double Life of Veronique has to be the cinematography and lighting employed by Slawomir Idziak and Kieslowski. As he would later do in his Three Colors trilogy, Kieslowski employs a dominating color palette, largely leaning on a golden yellow in this film that is accented and/or contrasted by browns, greens, and reds, throughout the picture. It is never clear what, if anything, this color scheme may reveal but it may very well be just another tool to link Weronika and Veronique together. Both of their worlds are dominated by this array of color, all while they similarly dress in those colors or have distinguishable brown hair with greenish eyes. Their skin is a golden yellowish white, while the red seems to capture the confusion and the passion felt for the world around them. Yet, each scene never seems to be dictated too much by what these may be hinting at or not, as a scene can quickly turn from golden to green to red with no noticeable change in mood or tone. Rather, it seems to, again, be a way of establishing the similarities of their world. In using colors found on and in both women, Kieslowski is able to create a unique perspective from both of them that would certainly play a role in the film’s overall themes.

This idea of perspective is further brought to life in the visuals via the abundance of mirror shots or even lens flares that Idziak and Kieslowski employ. With the film even opening with the city being viewed upside down with a mother explaining the Christmas Eve star or the veins in a leaf to their respective daughters, a sequence somewhat played out again as Irene Jacob rides a train and views the city via a marble/bubble. Often times in the film, there will either be handheld camera to plop the viewer right alongside her, a distorted or filtered lens that proves a unique view on the world, shots through a window that have reflections of light on them, a mirror guiding light into an apartment that proves distracting, lens flares popping off of the lens, and even a prism-like view of one building in particular when seen from a train. All of these mirrors, bending of light, and windows seem to hint at an idea of perspective. Everyone’s perspective on the world is different, but perhaps that is never been better shown than by Weronika and Veronique. From the restrictive and protest-filled regime experienced by Weronika to the loose and extravagant world inhabited by Veronique in Paris, it is not hard to see how this idea of perspective comes to life. Veronique visits Poland once, but as a tourist and misses the fact she took a photo of her doppelganger in the process. Weronika, meanwhile, notices Veronique but just stands and watches as she gets on a bus and drives away. The two women are not all that different in behavior or beliefs, but their experiences vary greatly based upon where they are in the world and it changes them considerably. This variable perspective - even when viewed from the exact same eyes and body - proves to be the overwhelming takeaway from the constant visual motif of mirrors or windows altering the view of a situation. In a way, it becomes quite profound as Kieslowski is able to show the demonstrable differences in how one turns out, lives, and experiences life, based solely upon where they are born.

Yet, where this doppelganger situation truly fractures the mind of Veronique - and, to a lesser degree, Weronika - comes in her sense of identity. As she sleeps with and chats with puppeteer Alexandre Fabbri (Philippe Volter), a few things occur. As he is a puppeteer who performs for her students, she is able to see the delicacy of his work as he manipulates the puppets into doing whatever he wants, even when it means harm comes to the puppet as part of the show. Later, he admits he makes two of every puppet, just in case one becomes worn out and needs to be replaced. In a way, this feels like a comment on our very world, especially if doppelgangers exist and are believed to be common. In some way, Weronika and Veronique prove the same and somewhat interchangeable with one another, even if their experiences are different. As with the original puppet, Weronika is the one who is able to perform and sings for a crowd, until it finally kills her. Veronique is the puppet who starts in the box as a backup, having to learn from the original and stepping in after the other one can no longer be used (in effect, unconsciously living someone else's life while still living her own). It speaks to a fragility and lack of self that now dominates Veronique’s world-view. As she lays on the bed crying after realizing that she was truly not alone and was right about the sense of loss - and the fact that she is not the only one who looks like she does - the film becomes deeply affecting, but also thought-provoking. This is a woman who has had her sense of self ripped away violently as a result of realizing that someone else was her in some way. There is certainly a delicacy and fragility to life, one that she is now forced to confront in a way never anticipated before. As she sits outside of her dad’s apartment at the end - with trees reflecting on the car’s windshield, naturally - one can practically feel her need to understand. Her need to feel like herself, to just be her, and to make sense of everything she has seen and now knows. Yet, there is no way to do so. It, like the film, is just a feeling. One she will have to either cope with or let destroy her. Everyone believes they are one of a kind, but how will one cope with learning that they are not and that God, like a puppeteer, creates two of everyone in case one gets damaged? What is the link between the two? Is Weronika even dead? There is a shot from her POV of dirt being thrown on her grave, is that from her perspective or from a dream had by Veronique? There are no easy answers, but what is clear is that this is a film built on this depths of this existential crisis, one that Veronique can hardly comprehend.

Beyond all of this, however, this is a film that thrives on a feeling. Kaleidoscopic and disorienting while possessing a dream-like quality, The Double Life of Veronique is hard to truly pin down. Yet, it is an easy one to experience quite fully. From the emotion to the general energy of the film, it proves quite infectious, entrancing the audience as it walks to the beat of its own drum. It is nearly incomprehensible at times, yet always gripping and powerful to watch and experience alongside these characters. Irene Jacob’s grace and elegance in the role certainly help with this, proving to be an incredibly sympathetic figure and one who is worth experiencing all of this confusion alongside. She has a delicacy to her and her delivery that winds up being the perfect encapsulation of the film’s portrayal of the delicate balance of the world that keeps it moving while having little reason and explanation.

A gripping, beautiful, and thought-provoking work that succeeds as an incredible experience and as one that lingers in the mind of viewers long after it ends, Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique is a brilliant film with a brilliant performance, gorgeous visuals, and terrific ideas that Kieslowski brings to life with relative ease. A borderline masterpiece.

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