Another Look at Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique
The best thing about a one hundred year plus history in cinema is that there have become many kinds of great films. Years ago, the discourse on great filmmaking was limited to Hollywood and the few areas around the world that challenged Hollywood with their own ideas and brands of filmmaking. As film developed into an art, the term “cinematic” came to include many ideas and theories. All sorts of different philosophies and structures were being seen around the world, from new film languages in L’Avventura to the advent of films of essay subjects, like in Hitler, A Film From Germany. When Krzysztof Kieslowski made The Double Life of Veronique, he made an ambitious work in the nature of metaphysics. The result was a personal film that challenged conventions and introduced new ideas into film art.
Even today, The Double Life of Veronique stands out as the most unique and ambiguous film for Krzysztof Kieslowski. It is the mysterious story of seemingly two women, one in Poland and the other in France, and how both share connections and similarities so intimate that they seem to be connected with each other. When one dies, the other feels grief so foreign and strong that she no idea what to make of it. The grief though gives her an innate understanding to take measures to prevent the death that was caused in the other. Towards the end the woman in France, Veronique, discovers a picture of a woman resembling herself and is captivated by the possibilities of what it means. It leads her focus on the metaphysical possibilities around her.
Before the film was made, the project was considered an alien one for Kieslowski. Having made his stamp in Polish cinema first with short documentaries that extended back to the 1960s with his days at the Lodz Film School, he became the face of Polish cinema during the mid 70s and the 80s with films like The Scar and Camera Buff that explored personal despair in the Poland. Even films like No End had political implications that went back to his documentary period. But in his fiction he was beginning to explore the subject and themes that would predate The Double Life of Veronique. Kieslowski was making personal films that focused on the place of blind chance and fate. Blind Chance epitomized its title while The Decalogue looked at the place of fate in real life as guided by the moral messages of the Ten Commandments.
The similarities that these films had to other Polish works that they were made on modest subjects and dealt with bleak themes. The difference is that Kieslowski was beginning to edge out an interest in his subjects that made him unique. Having come from a constricted the world that was under the reign of the Soviet Union, he didn’t simply turn to the social and political like many other filmmakers. He saw other avenues to focus on to bridge the gaps in life. As he stated in an interview, “There are too many things in the world which divide people, such as religion, politics, history, and nationalism. If culture is capable of anything, then it is finding that which unites us all…. Feelings are what link people together, because the word `love' has the same meaning for everybody. Or `fear', or `suffering'. We all fear the same way and the same things. And we all love in the same way.” This belief sounds simple, but it was also the only way he was able to make the drastic jump to the very different film, The Double Life of Veronique.
When Krzysztof Kieslowski made The Double Life of Veronique, he made his first film that included an international cast as well as an international production. But the film was not a clear leave of Poland. Half of the production was situated in Poland and the other half was in France. The film had hallmarks of Kieslowski’s past and showed the future he was going to begin stepping into. The first part (set in Poland) of the story deals with Weronika. She is the exact duplicate of Veronique in France, but dies tragically in a concert. Before she does, Kieslowski implemented aspects of Polish life and his old filmmaking realism to get Poland to stand out. In one scene, Veronika is caught in the midst of a street protest and then another scene shows the transportation of a statue of Vladimir Lenin. These are cues to tie in Kieslowski’s past filmography with all the elements that it makes his new material for him.
But for Kieslowski, the major thrust of his work in The Double Life of Veronique is what he was able to do with an international production that allowed him to use the best equipment around the world. He made a film that was able excel in cinematography and have a lavish look and feel that idealizes the world instead of showing it at its gritty core. This evolution to large production had little to do with greater financial opportunity, but feelings based on an aesthetic choice. I get a similar feeling in his decision with the one that filmmakers like Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni made in transitioning from black and white to color. They didn’t do it at their first opportunity, but only when they wanted to tackle the aesthetic responsibility of filming in color. As Roger Ebert said about Federico Fellini with Juliet of the Spirits, “It is the work of a director who has cut loose from the realism of his early work and is toying with the images, situations and obsessions that delight him.” When Fellini entered his Fellini-esque stage, he needed the backdrop of colors and a bigger budget to fulfill his fantasies on screen.
Kieslowski’s switch to sophisticated production allowed him to use production to give a more rounded approach to conveying the themes in his film. As he once said, “It’s a film about emotions and nothing else.” Kieslowski, because of that, layers his film with colors and textures and a plot to emphasize the emotions in the story. The scenes play like meditations. Colors and music inhabit scenes. There is little standard drama, but moments of their lives that play to greater meaning because of the force that the colors and music play into the characterization. The end result of the texture of the scenes is a film that is not balanced on a typical approach but instead has closer relationship to avant-garde. The small moments make up the film. Every shade of color and texture is not just a setting of the scene, but a forwarding of ideas.
The push into the avant-garde is detailed in the story. Both Veronique and Veronika are singers. Music is at the heart of their passion and singing becomes the demise for the latter. Instead of Kieslowski filming to capture music as background, he uses it through out the film to dig at the emotions. As Annette Insdorf commented, “The choral music during the credits turn out to be sung by Veronika in the rainy street. But Preisner’s melodies continue like magical aural strings between the two women, invoking invisible forces at work.” Kieslowski did a similar thing in Blue by focusing on Juliette Binoche’s character through her deceased husband’s music that continued to haunt her after a tragic accident.
While the audience is aware of the connections between Veronique and Veronika, the problem is that Veronique doesn’t know. She unknowingly grieves for Veronika’s death, but doesn’t know what it means. So the film introduces a character to make Veronique more aware of her surroundings. It is in a puppeteer named Alexandre. Veronique becomes aware of him at one of his performances. She becomes entranced by the performance and by him. The texture of his face in a mirror off to the side and the music surrounding the performance enthrall her. It becomes her initial scene to become interested in him. The scene has little correlation to offer an explanation why there is romantic interest, but Veronique’s intense focus on him and his performance links her character very emotionally to him in a way that the audience can understand.
Kieslowski explained the reason of using a puppeteer is because he felt he needed something delicate as well as mysterious. The character fits because his presence is never over stated and his art allows for an emotional connection. When it becomes evident that there is interest between both characters for one another, Alexandre challenges Veronique’s attention by sending her mysterious items, like a string in the mail or playing her music over the phone but never identifying himself. The audience knows the string is personal to Veronika because in an earlier scene she was playing with it while auditioning. Veronique then looks to a similar string in her apartment that is also attached to music sheets. The music is obviously personal to both of them because it relates back to their singing.
The floodgates open between the world of the metaphysical when Alexandre and discovers a picture of Veronika in her collection of photographs. First, he assumes it is really her, but Veronique attests to the fact it isn’t her, but her emotions can’t help but become overwhelmed to all the possibilities of what it could mean. The purpose of Alexandre finally becomes clear. As Kieslowski explains, “Alexandre’s made [Veronique] aware that something else exists, that the other Veronika did exist…He’s the one who noticed, and perhaps he understood what she couldn’t understand herself.” The rest of the story shows how Alexandre weaves Veronique’s life into his art, but his initial purpose in the plot is that he is the one who begins to make her think with all her senses. The example is clear with how they finally meet in a café. It is done by him sending her a cassette of the surrounding noises and hoping she was able to use the clues in the recording to track down his whereabouts. It was a scene that had little to do with anything, but made obvious what level the focus of the film was on.
In one way, The Double Life of Veronique plays into the classical sense of metaphysics as defined by Aristotle. It gives a rendering of the fundamental nature of reality that says in every person there is a second life being lived elsewhere that keeps them from being alone. Because Aristotle did not define metaphysics by a specific religious doctrine, the film is able to be true to Aristotle’s word and yet be a purely emotional work that exists on a more spiritual level instead of a religious one. The film isn’t entirely devoid of themes and issues that were in Kieslowski’s earlier works, but it delves into metaphysics with a visual and feeling that is unlike anything Kieslowski had done before.
Outside of the unique place the film stands in Kieslowski’s filmography, it is also a rare film that expands the bounds of film art. One of the major literary movements of the last hundred years has been the metafiction movement. Now it has a million different interpretations and ideas, but a general idea has been about the place of the author to the text. Patricia Waugh identified the main staple as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.” This has been apparent in all major works ranging from James Joyce to Kurt Vonnegaut.
What is unique about Double Life of Veronique isn’t that the film just relates back to its superficiality. All filmmakers who have taken on a style in any form have also done this. Style is the ambition to ditch just telling a story and instead making the audience aware that a creator is at the helm of the film they are watching. The difference in this film is that Double Life makes it reference deeply within the story. At the end, when Alexandre tells Veronique he has written a book seemingly about her life called, “The Double Life…” he has implied that he really could be the author and acting as the role of Kieslowski within the story. Kieslowski never implied this idea in interviews himself, but he clearly did say, “I don’t film metaphors. People only read them as metaphors, which is very good. That’s what I want. I always want to stir people to something.”
People have all different ways to weigh the value of techniques in a story. But there is no doubt that the focus on style before content has oppressed film history for too long. Filmmakers are still authors rated higher on their style than the depths of their storytelling. The Double Life of Veronique began as a film that was crowded between two major works for Kieslowski, but the depths the film reaches on an internal level has made it an important work. The challenge is that maybe films of this style and philosophical level can start to become influential in major studies. The film world is still dominated by the novice ideas of a world that created the “auteur” and celebrated it as the heights of cinema.