March 9, 2017
Double Life of Veronique, The – France, 1991
I first saw Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique on a secondhand VHS tape more than twenty years ago. It didn’t impress me, and I quickly got rid of my copy of the film. Normally that would be the end of the story, yet in the years that followed Kieslowski would release his incredible Three Colors trilogy, and I would be introduced to his 1988 masterpiece The Decalogue. Then the coup de grace – the good people over at the Criterion Collection elected to release The Double Life of Veronique as part of their collection of important classic and contemporary films. Thus, it was inevitable that I would eventually begin to question my previous assessment. Perhaps, my inner voice went, I had been too young and inexperienced with the nuances of film to understand the movie. On the other hand, my head countered, Criterion also released versions of Michael Bay’s Armageddon and The Rock, two films I would hardly call important.
For those unfamiliar with the film, The Double Life of Veronique begins from the perspective of a young woman named Weronica, played by Irene Jacob. Shortly after we watch Weronica have a romantic rendezvous with her boyfriend, Antex, she reveals to her father that she has the sneaky sense that she is not alone in the world. Her father, not knowing the title of the film he’s in, explains the logic of this. After all, she has him, her friends, her family. Weronica eventually makes her way to Krakow, where, during a chaotic protest that threatens to turn violent at any moment, she sees in the distance her doppelganger snapping pictures of the action around her. The moment is fleeting, for the look-a-like is quickly ushered onto a bus and whisked away.
Now, I suspect the average person would view such an event as truly mind-blowing, perhaps even causing you to question the nature of reality and the curious characteristics of chance. However, Weronica just smiles and then returns to her life. We see her audition for a choir, begin to grapple with a severe pain in her left side, and then die during a performance. The film then shifts focus to Veronique, the doppelganger.
By killing off Weronica, the film enters uncharted territory. Usually a film about people who have doubles is about what happens when they eventually have some sort of confrontation. However, the only sign we have of the impact that Weronica has on Veronique is Veronique’s sudden decision to stop taking music lessons. The implication is that the decision somehow saves her life. From there, Veronique’s life is much her own, and her actions begin to resemble those crafted by a writer trying far too hard to be clever. How else can you explain the bizarre decision to have her proclaim that she is in love with someone she doesn’t know and that man’s eccentric attempts to woo her by dropping little clues as to where she can meet him? These are not the acts of normal people, and only in movies do women respond to them in such a positive manner. Really. When was the last time you heard a woman say, It was only when I heard the tape he sent me of street sounds that I knew he truly loved me?
Watching the film again, I was amazed at how similar my reactions were. I fluctuated between boredom, slight interest, and ultimately disappointment. This is a film that goes nowhere fast, and even if the ending presents a version of events that adds a subtle twist to the story of two women who both look alike and appear to be the same age, it’s simply too late to save the film. Kieslowski is indeed a talented director, and even in a film like this one, which never truly gets going, he demonstrates his ability to shape what we see on the screen in an interesting way. His use of colors is particularly impressive, and, at two key moments, he even shapes the action in the kind of frame usually associated with silent films. However, by the end of the film, these techniques come to resemble the kind of smoke and mirrors that a less experienced director may rely on to draw attention away from a simple fact: There’s really nothing else here to look at. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
*The Double Life of Veronique is in France with English subtitles.