Leaving Your Other Self Behind – ‘The Double Life of Veronique’ (1991, Krystof Kieslowski)

“I have a strange feeling….”

 The Double Life of Veronique saw Krysztof Kieslowski (1941-1996) moving away from the social concerns of films like A Short Film about Killing (1988), and focusing on the supernatural elements that often touched his work. There was always an otherness to Kieslowski’s films; the suggestion of something beyond our understanding. No End (1984) is the most obvious example, with a ghost watching over his ex-wife during a period of political unrest. Tellingly the living and the dead both seem as sad and lost as each other. The Double Life of Veronique is an enigmatic tale of two identical women, Weronika and Veronique, living uncannily similar lives.

Kieslowski claimed not to be interested in politics, but making films under an authoritarian and censorious regime meant there were always restrictions placed upon him. The Double Life of Veronique is Kieslowski’s first film made without fear of outside interference. At one point Weronika walks in a different direction from a political march in Krakow, oblivious to the protesters. Kieslowski seemed to be taking a similar journey, towards something broader and more universal.

Two physically identical women in two different cities; both are singers, both have weak hearts. There is a moment when they almost meet. Weronika (Irene Jacob) is astonished to see a woman who looks exactly like her amongst a group of French tourists. As her doppelganger boards a bus Weronika runs after her and Veronique (Jacob) inadvertently takes her photograph. Kieslowski and cinematographer Slawomir Idziak make the world seem far more beautiful than it normally is bathing it in a permanent golden haze. Photographs, reflections, twin dolls; doubles haunt the film. Often images are distorted by glass, to add to the feeling of otherness.

Weronika is full of life. First seen singing in a choir, she keeps singing long after her colleagues have stopped and sought shelter from the rain. She experiences a rapture bordering on the religious. Music also links the two women. Weronika dies during a concert when her heart gives out. Veronique is immediately struck by a feeling of grief. The next day she visits her singing teacher and tells him she is giving up. Veronique seems more tentative than Weronika, more hesitant and troubled, yet we only get to know her after she is affected by this inexplicable feeling of suddenly being alone.

Veronique is drawn towards Alexandre (Philippe Volter), a puppeteer who visits the school she teaches at to perform a marionette show. Alexandre begins to reappear in Veronique’s life as if by coincidence. Veronique retreats from Alexandre when he claims he wants to use her as inspiration for a novel, but they spend a night together in a hotel. Though The Double Life of Veronique presents the doppelganger as being like a lost sibling, there is a brief reminder that the idea of an exact double is often used as a source of terror. Alexandre looks through the photo-reels from Krakow and shows Veronique the picture of a woman he assumes to be her. Yet Veronique knows she took the photo, and she never owned clothes like the one the girl (Weronika) is wearing.

Alexandre creates a story for his marionette show about identical girls; one of whom burns her hand badly by touching a stove, but the other pulls away at the last moment as if influenced by the pain visited upon her double. Veronique backs away from Alexandre and leaves him to his puppets. Kieslowski too shies away from revealing any more as if like Veronique he feels the implications are too much to bear. Kieslowski announced his retirement shortly after the release of Three Colours: Red (1994), despite the film’s commercial and critical success. Like Veronique he returned home. Like Weronika his heart failed him.

Kieslowski commented on the difficulties of conveying “the realm of superstitions, fortune-telling, presentiments, intuition, dreams.” (1) For Kieslowski these make up the inner-life of a human being and no filmmaker since his death has been able to deal with these themes as effectively. German director Tom Twyker tried with the stylish but empty Blind Chance (1981) knock-off Lola Rennt (1998), and the ghastly euro-pudding Heaven (2002), based on an unfinished screenplay by Kieslowski and his regular collaborator Krysztof Piesiewicz. There is no other self out there, another Kieslowski, a doppelganger blessed with the same ability to ask metaphysical questions with a sublime grace.

1.       p 194 Kieslowski on Kieslowski. Faber & Faber 1995

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