Particles of light and flickers of shadow dance across the frame in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s luminary art film The Double Life of Veronique, constructing a fluttering opera of duality and déjà vu seemingly suspended in motion. Through the parallel characters of Polish singer Weronika and French music teacher Veronique (both played by Irene Jacob), women who live in separate cities but somehow feel each other’s presence, Kieślowski envisions a modern world where the combination of touch and fate can reconcile life’s incomprehensible mysteries. Not surprisingly, artistic mediums such as puppetry, song, and music formulate the shifting boundaries of this world, heightening the smallest moments through this feeling of unseen overlap. When their paths occasionally do cross in dizzying fits of circumstance, the women inherently gain access to a special form of self-evaluation that grows more ambiguous and personal as the film progresses.
Stylistically, Weronika’s rain-drenched home of Krakow feels cramped yet alive, limited by the inevitable blockades of communism but flushed with the hope of individual achievement. Interiors are shrouded in colorful light while exteriors tip the balance of perspective through off kilter camera angles. This nubile young woman is in the midst of self-discovery, having an affair with an older man then joining a famous choir almost by accident, her angelic voice soaring over the group from the opposite side of the room. Despite confidence and panache to spare, Weronika is still flowering before our very eyes, often moving through spaces open to any and all directions and possibilities. Hypnotic flashes of light break up the scenes and upside down reflections seen through a small glass orb reference what turns out to be a completely different perspective, something organically conjoined with Weronika’s own life.
After Weronika perishes mid-song, seemingly from the sheer power of her voice, Kieślowski transitions to the open-aired streets of Paris where Veronique teaches her students the exact song her double died reciting. With her class, Veronique seems lost, as if something very dear to her has suddenly evaporated, and she wonders the streets searching for an answer to this uneasiness. She begins an enticing and potentially tragic relationship with a puppeteer named Alexandre (Philippe Volter), a man who corresponds via some truly strange modes of happenstance, and this developing back and forth leads her to a poetic version of wish fulfillment. Most importantly, the specific experiences of both Weronika and Veronique become interconnected through details: scars on a finger, a simple caress of a man’s hand, or even the way light falls on a dusty room. Together, they form a picture we never really understand, a complete puzzle that fades at the very mention of rationalization.
As The Double Life of Veronique turns more incandescent and disjointed, it becomes clear Kieślowski isn’t interesting in the specific machinations of narrative or the idea of forward momentum, but of hypnotic stasis in a glowing temporal space. While alive, Weronicka slowly becomes aware of her potential through the same type of shared resonance Veronique feels so strongly later in the film. Yet this feeling doesn’t come to fruition until there’s a form of metaphysical closure, either through death or discovery. Late in the film, when Veronique realizes she captured her double in a photograph while visiting Poland, her eyes well up as if she’s seen a long lost friend for the first time. Even when this realization comes, Kieślowski plays down the dramatic or even romantic expectations, instead dwelling in the haunting knowledge that maybe, someone else occupies the same mental space you do.
Motifs, both visual and audible, snake through Kieślowski’s film with effortless precision. A hunched over woman walks down the street, looking back at both Weronika and Veronique in their respective time zones, evoking a sense of mortality and erosion at odds with their youthful exuberance. Slawomir Idriak’s floating camera captures these patterns wonderfully, and the haunting sound of classical music and operatic tenors offers a sublime audio frame to fill in the gaps. In the end, the sadness of not knowing yourself is palpable in both women’s experiences, and the joy in discovering something new has an equally forceful impact. Together, these themes make a twin subtext, much like every other element of The Double Life of Veronique. Kieślowski doesn’t want to create anything resembling an answer to these magnetic questions about fate and chance. He simply wants us to experience them in all their sensual glory, and be open to the fact that our world can turn wonderfully upside down at any moment.
Visually, The Double Life of Veronique is wholly dependent on the fluctuating textures of light and dark, mixing in artificial shades of color to complete the portrait. Criterion's 1080p transfer achieves this nicely, bringing more resolution to some dimly lit scenes filtering dual perspectives simultaneously. While the black levels occasionally run dark, the entire film looks shrouded in a beautiful glow, where lens flares and blurring often move Krzysztof Kieślowski's image toward surrealism. The characters often have yellow skin tones, but this looks purposefully constructed as opposed to being caused by a shoddy digital transfer. The image really pops during the classic puppet sequence, where Veronique and Alexandre's eyes meet for the first time, reflections refracting and faces distorting. Also, the many scenes where close-ups of Irene Jacob's milky white skin dominate the frame are especially evocative, her mixture of sexuality and naïveté luring the viewer into a fractured point of view. Audibly, the dialogue is all nicely mixed, and the music consistently haunts the fluid picture.
This Blu-ray release has a wealth of riches for Kieślowski enthusiasts like myself, including three rare short documentaries (Factory, Hospital, and Railway Station). This trio impressively shows Kieślowski's long obsession with the way deafening communist bureaucracy silences the hard work of the Polish workingman. There's also the added bonus of a wonderful short film entitled The Musicians, from Kieślowski's mentor and teacher Kazimierz Karabasz, detailing the constant overlap between artistic creation and strenuous work. It was purported to be one of Kieślowski's top 10 films of all time. Two documentaries are good examinations of Kieślowski's impact on film history: "Kieślowski-Dialogue," which features rare interview footage of the director on the set of The Double Life of Veronique, and the aptly named "1966-1988: Kieślowski, Polish Filmmake," a kind of summation of his career. The disc's one audio commentary, a polished and calming examination by academic Annette Insdorf, is an excellent compliment to Kieślowski's complex film. Lastly, the disc includes an alternate ending pushed on Kieślowski by none other than Harvey Weinstein for the film's U.S release that includes four more shots. Also included are telling interviews with Irene Jacob, Slawomir Idriak, and Zbigniew Preisner, and a lengthy booklet, highlighted by a contemplative essay on the film by critic Jonathan Romney.
Refracted reflections take center stage in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique, a poetic overture on the power of senses and sensibilities.