The Double Life of Véronique

The Double Life of Véronique ★★★★★

"I have a strange feeling. I feel like I'm not alone…like I'm not alone in the world."

The final feature of acclaim I have yet to see from Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieślowski, Podwójne życie Weroniki ["The Double Life of Véronique"] is the film that finally brought this legendary artist international acclaim. Alas, just 5 years after its premiere, and that of his heralded Three Colors trilogy in succession after this, Kieślowski had passed away. In such a brief time, this work vaulted him to global recognition yet he was taken too early. After watching so much of his filmography this past year and a half, it seemed fitting to cap it with what many say is the best film he ever made.

Weronika (Irène Jacob) is a young Polish woman living as her country exits the grasp of the Iron Curtain. A lauded choir singer, her and her boyfriend Antek (Jerzy Gudejko) look to the future together. One day, she wishes to visit an aunt in Kraków who is ill; while in the city she meets a friend who also sings in a choir, but Weronika just can't help herself and sings along with the group during their practice. She impresses the director and is given sheet music with which she should audition, but when she drops them accidentally during a protest through which she's walking, she notices a strange but oddly pleasant sight: a French tourist who looks exactly like her, departing on a bus. As Weronika prepares for an exciting opportunity with an acclaimed conductor (Aleksander Bardini), this chance encounter and faint feeling of not being "alone in the world" turns out to be startlingly real, as her life indeed will never be the same.

You shouldn't learn any more of the plot. Truly, nothing after the first 15 or 20 minutes should be revealed and I hope you haven't come across a review that has. It does make discussing the film's story a little difficult, but suffice to say the screenplay by Kieślowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz -- together again after the sensational series The Dekalog they co-wrote -- is brilliant, and ventures into elements of the fantastical and spiritual with ease and fluidity. Amazing sound design helps bring this forward in a riveting scene an hour into the film. A special trait of The Double Life of Véronique is the use of music intertwined with that plot, and once again the exceptional score is by longtime collaborator Zbigniew Preisner. A haunting and operatic composition with a chorus that repeats on cue, it does more than complement the picture: it quite clearly is another character unto itself.

(This is similar to what Kieślowski would do for one of his next films of that aforementioned trilogy, Three Colors: Blue, which I watched last year. Don't read my review though, it's no good. Instead, please see the review by my friend Andrew Hutch, which explains this point far better.)

Notably, the film is shot by cinematographer extraordinaire Sławomir Idziak, known for the fifth part of the Dekalog series and its theatrical counterpart A Short Film About Killing. In a glowing review, Roger Ebert called it "one of the most beautiful films I've seen." He continues in describing the "hypnotic effect" which he could not shake:

The cinematographer...finds a glow in Irene Jacob's pre-Raphaelite beauty. He uses a rich palette, including insistent reds and greens that don't "stand" for anything but have the effect of underlining the other colors. The other color, blending with both, is golden yellow, and then there are the skin tones. Jacob, who was 24 when the film was made, has a flawless complexion that the camera lingers near to. Her face is a template waiting for experience to be added.

It's worth mentioning that Jacob earned the award at Cannes for Best Actress, and when you see the film and the "double life" which she executes to perfection, you'll know why.

There's a palpable sense of magic in the filmmaking here of what is ultimately also a metaphysical work. While there is a narrative, it's an ethereal one, a mosaic narrative if you will. Cross-cutting Poland and France is a pretty explicit metaphor for Eastern and Western Europe and the lives on either side of the continent. Critic Jonathan Romney wrote of this, expressing a view that The Double Life of Véronique makes a "somber attempt at a definitive encapsulation of the human predicament at the end of the European twentieth century." In a stunningly intelligent essay that I am not smart enough to completely deconstruct, philosopher Slavoj Žižek takes a deeper look at the metaphysical:

This perception of our reality as one of the possible, often even not the most probable, outcomes of an open situation, this notion that other possible outcomes are not simply canceled out but continue to haunt our reality as a specter of what might have happened, conferring on our reality the status of extreme fragility and contingency, implicitly clashes with the predominant linear narrative forms of our literature and cinema….Krzysztof Kieślowski's obsession with the role of chance and of parallel alternate histories can be perceived as an endeavor to articulate this new life experience in all its ambiguity, one that links him to the more clearly “postmodern” directors of the past decade or two.

Žižek has written extensively on David Lynch, so I could imagine why he connected so strongly with this film as well. Once I saw where it was going, I couldn't help but think of Mulholland Drive. A different movie, to be sure, but it's inspired me to watch that masterpiece again.

Is it a coincidence that Irène Jacob stars in this work of genius, and also in Kieślowski's final piece Three Colors: Red? Perhaps not. Maybe the cinematic gods willed it to be so. Regardless, it's another undeniable artistic masterwork by one of my favorite directors, a thing of pure beauty and obfuscation for the purpose of deep reflection and intrigue.

Added to My Best Reviews of 2019.
Added to Krzysztof Kieślowski ranked.
Added to My Subjective List of the Best Narrative Films.

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