Jan. 31st, 2014

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The Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski began his career as a documentary filmmaker, and when he moved into fictional features, his work was frequently characterized by a strong sense of realism and social commentary, particularly in his "Decalogue" project. However, he also had a strong spiritual side, which he explored in his later films using far more stylized, almost experimental visuals. The first of these was "The Double Life of Véronique," the story of two identical women, one Polish and one French, who have never met but share a mysterious bond with each other.

Irène Jacob plays both the Polish Weronika and the French Véronique. First the film follows Weronika, an aspiring soprano who sings with a choir. She has a boyfriend, a good relationship with her family members, and displays a liveliness of spirit that she attributes to a recent epiphany that she is not alone in the world. During a trip to Kraków she gets a brief glimpse of Véronique, who is visiting as a tourist. Shortly thereafter, the narrative switches to Véronique's POV. She is a music teacher who works with children, and pursues a romantic relationship with a children's book author, Alexandre (Philippe Volter). Though her situation is very different, parallels keep appearing with Weronika's life. Véronique is also aware of the strange connection to her double, though her reaction to this is more ambiguous.

With a highly subjective, free-flowing narrative and a heavy emphasis on metaphysical themes, "The Double Life of Véronique" often feels like a visual poem. Much depends on mood and atmosphere, and Kieślowski's use of imagery to evoke so many different emotions and states of being is exceptional. I especially love Weronika's section of the film, where she's frequently in this heightened state of joy and wonder - singing during a downpour, or viewing the passing landscape through a translucent rubber ball during a train ride. This behavior could become contrived very quickly, but Irène Jacob's performance is excellent, and her presence is magnetic. It's impossible to take your eyes off Weronika, or fail to be caught up in everythng she experiences.

And then we meet Véronique. Is she the same person as Weronika? Is the grief and doubt she feels connected to Weronika's joy? She also has her moments of experiencing wonder, watching a puppetry performance with a group of children, which provides the impetus for her storyline. However, Véronique's life is more complicated and her outlook more subdued. Story becomes more important in her section of the film, namely a mystery involving a casette tape that turns out quite differently from what she expected. Would Weronika have reacted differently? What was Véronique hoping to find?

Movies offer a different, altered way of looking at the world, and in many ways this is the central idea of "Véronique." The two versions of the heroine are different lenses through which we see similar events, emphasized by their own habit of gazing at things through looking glasses and mirrors. Perception has a great effect on their lives, though they aren't fully aware of it, similar to how the three different timelines in Kieślowski's earlier film "Blind Chance" are the result of a few minor choices made by the main character. It doesn't surprise me that multiple versions of "The Double Life of Véronique" were created, each emphasizing different aspects of the whole.

The pace here is slow and deliberate, creating a meditative story full of small wonders. The puppetry performance, for example is a rare delight, a little-seen, old-fashioned form the art where we see the puppeteer's hands manipulating the puppets. The rain storm at the beginning of the film comes out of nowhere, but Weronika's reaction to it is equally unexpected, resulting in one of the most beautiful images in the entire film. The film seems ot be full of symbols, though Kieślowski insists they were not intended as such. Perhaps it would be better to call them echoes of ideas and concepts that recur over and over throughout.

After "Véronique" Kieślowski would go on to make the "Three Colors" trilogy of similarly free-form, spiritual stories about people searching for meaning in their lives. "Véronique" often feels like a precursor to these films, especially the rich visuals that reflect the main characters' inner worlds. Though there is no emphasis on one particular color, as with "Blue," "White," and "Red," I always recall the film having a strong emphasis on golden and sepia tones, making everything feel slightly removed and unreal. Thus it is easier to accept the possibility of otherworldly, unnamed forces existing, affecting people on the most fundamental level.

And I appreciate that they remain an existential mystery, never to be explained. In Kieślowski's films, unseen connections, alternate realities, and doubles simply exist, and they are never questioned or really remarked upon. Perhaps Weronika and Véronique are actually separated twins, but that is entirely beside the point. Instead it is the intangible realm of feelings and instincts and the spirit that is explored, and Kieślowski's ability to bring that journey to the screen remains unparalleled.
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