The Double Life of Véronique

The Double Life of Véronique ★★★★★

Is it so deliberately esoteric as to radiate pretension? Do even the minute scraps of a plot fail to conclude satisfactorily? Possibly, and while these flaws may curtail my enjoyment of lesser films, The Double Life of Véronique uses them to its advantage, crafting such an invitingly wistful atmosphere that it almost felt like Kieślowski had directed it specifically to resonate with my cinematic preferences. Superficially it is a tale of two musicians, and more fundamentally it concerns music as a general concept. But at its most abstract level, it is music. Few, if any, films I have ever seen have so distinctly produced in me the feelings that music alone gives me through their non-musical elements ― color, texture, movement, composition, dialogue, and so on ― and amalgamate them into a cinematic symphony. I’ve rarely been so immediately taken by a film before; it’s staggering how every facet of the filmmaking process fits flawlessly into an intricate puzzle.

I should first explain why this has such a particular effect on me. Concurrently with my love of film, I developed an enormous interest in what I refer to as art music and what I reluctantly concede you likely call “classical music” (much of what I listen to is from the late Romantic and early Modernist periods, so not technically Classical at all). Compared to my cinephilia, I am significantly less pretentious in my musical tastes — not only do I generally listen to whatever I think sounds good with little regard to supposed quality, I also don’t happen to have a site like this one to post lengthy reviews on a daily basis about the music I listen to! But that doesn’t mean I have a lesser appreciation for it, just that it is more of a constant background presence in my life (such as when I’m writing Letterboxd reviews: as I jot this down I’m listening to Amy Beach’s exceptional Gaelic Symphony). As I see it, music is special because of the distinguishing spectrum from abstract to programmatic ― see Fantasia ― where certain music contains more explicit imagery than others, but unlike film where whatever's on screen is simply what you see, there's no definite accompanying visual image. You, the listener, create the pictures in your mind, and sometimes you get an indication of what the composer imagined for each scene, and sometimes you don’t. To clarify, this is different from literature, as one’s mental response to a book depends on their understanding of the words on the page. Music, on the other hand, is an experience universal in that everybody (the deaf excluded, of course) is capable of having a strong innate reaction to regardless of their education or linguistic background.

What I'm getting at here is that The Double Life of Véronique is not dissimilar to a program piece; there is an overarching and distinct intention towards plot and character, but with such a loose, dreamlike narrative, a viewer is uninhibited in making their own associations and explications. So here’s mine: in composition, The Double Life of Véronique approximates a sonata form; as with this form, there is an inherent inflexible formalism, but the harmonious lyricism eclipses the structural rigidity, creating a work both artistic and artless. I'll try my best to elucidate further without revealing any of the specific details of the plot, which would certainly be immensely less intriguing if spoiled. Throughout the film, the characters and their actions ― beyond Weronika and Véronique, our first and second subjects ― are inconsequential, mere modulations of the main themes. The film’s exposition presents these two women, uncannily similar but also clearly separate people, separated by language and location. Kieślowski is interested in examining the metaphysical connections between the two themes, divergent yet intrinsically complementary, two halves of a whole, each one incomplete without the other. They develop together, revealing through their interplay how deep their interrelation is. And finally, the film’s recapitulation, where the differences are reconciled, the two themes are played in alike keys, and Véronique regains agency over her life by discovering the secret behind her lifelong sense that she was never alone. And just like that, the detached fragments of this double life come together inexorably yet miraculously, as Kieślowski presents us with a tantalizingly symbolic explanation without revealing the magic behind his tricks, leaving our heads still brimming with questions by the coda.

There’s a good chance many of you will find my musical analogies abstruse, so bear with me as I commence another. Irène Jacob, the actress playing both the Polish Weronika (dubbed by a Pole) and French Véronique (her own voice) is both figuratively and to an extent literally the soloist of a concerto. The literal aspect is readily manifest: Weronika’s concert scene, where she is both the solo soprano and on a meta-narrative level performing the equivalent of a cadenza as an actress. As I mentioned, other characters beyond our pair of Véroniques are a peripheral sea of noise; it is Jacob’s angelic performance above all else that is our center of attention and an anchor in the turbulent world she inhabits. I cannot overstate the immense talent she presents in the starring role(s); she exhibits the otherworldly mystery and state of preternatural relationships transcending space and reason. Krzysztof Kieślowski uses her beauty, in appearance and personality, to its fullest extent, through the soft yet vivid tones he bathes the film in and the genuinely thoughtful dialogue.

The Double Life of Véronique isn’t just Kieślowski and Jacob’s picture ― I would be remiss by not mentioning Zbigniew Preisner’s marvelous score, which naturally is a necessity in elevating the film from any decent arthouse production to the pure cinematic expression of music I described earlier. Preisner’s melancholy main theme, within the film’s universe ostensibly a melody from the (fictitious) composer Van den Budenmayer, is one of unquestionably haunting elegance. In its numerous repetitions over the course of the film, it never loses its simple grace, even when played to disastrous effect by a discordant school orchestra, and certainly not when sublimely orchestrated into the original concerto from the aforementioned concert scene, which might just take the cake as the most powerful moment from this entire movie ― you’ve got to see (and hear) it to believe it. Simply put, the score deserves to be remembered as one of the most spectacular musical compositions ever made, irregardless of whether it was written for film.

I certainly did not expect to give out a five-star rating during my run of Kieślowski films before seeing the even more acclaimed (and higher rated on this site) Dekalog and Three Colors trilogy. Once I do I’ll be able to decide if Kieślowski ever made anything better than The Double Life of Véronique in his tragically abbreviated life, but whether or not he does won’t prevent me from declaring him the creator of a cinematic masterpiece, one that has deeply and personally affected me. And if I find he did succeed in surpassing this, I’ll have no choice but to declare him one of a select few directors whose inimitable work makes them qualified to stand among my cinematic pantheon. Almost 24 hours after watching it, the music’s still stuck in my head, but I’m glad it is. What a beautiful, unforgettable film.

My Favorite Movies | Krzysztof Kieślowski ranked | Best First-Time Watches of 2022

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