The Double Life of Véronique (1991)

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I remember seeing The Double Life of Véronique in the tiny upstairs auditorium (it had previously been the balcony) at the Esquire Theatre in Denver sometime in 1992. There were, I believe, seven people in the theater on a Thursday night. It was the last night of the film’s run in Denver, and I had recruited a friend to accompany me that night on the drive from Boulder to downtown Denver. (I had driven in by myself the night before, and was essentially cold-cocked by what I saw, so I knew I had to return.)


So there was me and my friend up front, a couple of anonymous patrons, and then one older guy sitting in the back row. After the credits rolled and we were making our way out of the place, the older guy came up to us and said something like, “It’s quite a film, isn’t it?” When I responded, “Yes, actually, I was just here last night and had to come back immediately to see it again,” he kind of snorted in response. “This is my fifth time,” he said, with an impatient scowl. But then he wanted to know: Did I know anything about Van den Budenmayer? I’m sure my face was a blank, and so he explained that the beautiful music in the film, the majestic “Concerto in E Minor” that accompanies the final performance by the Polish Weronika, was written by the Dutch composer Van den Budenmayer. The fellow had been haunting all the record stores in Denver and no one had heard of the guy. I wished him luck, and we parted ways.

I didn’t find out why it was so danged hard to find information on Van den Budenmayer until the next year, 1993, when Faber & Faber published Kieslowski on Kieslowski, an excellent reference to the director’s work. “He’s our favorite Dutch composer from the end of the nineteenth century,” the director says. “He doesn’t exist.” Judging from questions posted to Usenet newsgroups over the years, that poor fellow in the back row of the Esquire Theatre wasn’t the only one driven a little batty looking for information on Van den Budenmayer.

People are susceptible to an in-joke like this (the unseen character of “Van den Budenmayer” was introduced in the ninth of Kieslowski’s 10 short Dekalog films for Polish television, and he’s name-checked again in Three Colors: Red) because The Double Life of Véronique is successful in creating what amounts to a mythology around the idea of the doppelganger. If you believe, for 97 minutes anyway, in the prima facie batty idea that there are two singers, one Polish and one French but both identical in appearance, who share an imprecise, unspoken, but deeply felt bond across the miles and national borders, then the notion of a grandiose but obscure composer named Van den Budenmayer writing a grand chorale that sounds like a polyphonic doorbell rung by the Grim Reaper himself hardly seems outside the realm of possibility. There is, in fact, something to be said for pulling this off with a straight face, and I think that’s an indicator of Kieslowski’s good humor.

On one level, The Double Life of Véronique is serious like a tumor. The execution is sober, and the piece itself is freighted with intimations of mortality and a foreboding sense of the metaphysical unknown. But on another, it’s an extraordinary playful film, intoxicated perhaps by spiritual indulgence. It’s hard to say whether Kieslowski, who certainly regarded the Church with some suspicion, was any kind of religious believer; based on his work I expect he leaned toward atheism. Of course, Double Life isn’t meant to be read literally. It’s poetry, not prose, fantasy rather than scripture. But it’s as expressive an attempt as I’ve seen to qualify on film those feelings that are stirred up inside us as we try to make sense of what’s perhaps a deeply ingrained tendency to believe in the existence of a self beyond what can physically be described — to believe in the purely metaphysical concept of the soul. For what else but a sort of communion between like souls can explain the connections between Weronika and Veronique? Well, perhaps they are two women sharing one soul, with a self-awareness bobbing dimly into consciousness, like words in another language filtered through short-wave radio static. There’s nothing in Double Life that suggests the intervention of a deity; quite to the contrary, the real omnipotent figure influencing Veronique’s actions turns out to be only a man in love — Alexandre, he of the tiny puppet theater, sequestered in a cafe near a train station on a busy street with tape recorder rolling.

There’s a similar feeling, as it turns out, at the end of Kieslowski’s Red, when the character played by Jean Louis Trintignant seems to contrive to bring the entire trilogy to a fortuitous close. When he describes to Jacob’s character, Valentine, the happiness of her life decades hence, as dreamt by him, she seems suddenly to be taken by superstition: “Who are you?” she asks. And the answer comes back, cool and mysterious: “A retired judge.” (Perhaps God is dead, and then again perhaps he is just in retreat, weary of measuring out the sins and grace of mortals.) Valentine’s response here is telling, and it echoes Veronique’s own frightened flight at the end of Double Life to her father’s home: “I feel something important is happening around me. And it scares me.”

Does Double Life (the film, not the woman) believe in the idea of a soul? Perhaps. When she sings in rehearsal, and when she makes love, Weronika fiddles in one hand with the laces on her music portfolio, or with the tassles at the end of a blanket. When Weronika sings her last chorale and pitches forward to the stage floor, there’s a tantalizing cut to a shot that swoops quickly over the heads of the spectators and away from her body — the POV, perhaps, of a soul passing out of this world. And then Kieslowski brings us back to earth — the next POV shot is taken from eye level, at a Dutch angle, as a bystander loses Weronika’s pulse and declares: “She’s dead.” A few moments later, we see the view from inside her grave, Kieslowski being one in a line of filmmakers (dating back at least to Dreyer’s Vampyr) who’ve thought to put their own audiences inside the coffin. It’s as though Kieslowski’s film itself has briefly allowed itself the notion of the soul, and then brings itself sternly back to physical reality: dead is dead after all. Then again, I’m not sure there’s any other moment in this film as immense and mysterious as the one when the French Véronique, reading an EKG and fiddling with a shoelace received from a mysterious, unknown correspondent, suddenly snaps it taut in her hands: flatline.

240_veronique.jpgIt’s not all portents and parallels and shivering peeks into the abyss, of course. With this film, Kieslowski became a more intensely sensual filmmaker than ever before, a condition perhaps stirred in him by the remarkably guileless beauty and talent of his young actress. She barely seems to be acting at all; the performance isn’t entirely naturalistic — there are moments when she seems to be looking directly into the camera, as easily as she turns her face up to meet the falling rain or a shower of dust from a ceiling — but it feels intuitive. And there are scenes where both Weronika and Veronique are in bed with with their lovers, and the camera moves in extremely close — in one shot examining her body through a spherical glass, like the ball through which Weronika views the Polish countryside early in the film — and light and shadow play across the pale flesh given a preternatural glow by the golden filters favored here by Kieslowski and his cinematographer Slawomir Idziak. Through Jacob, the film discovers an extraordinary intimacy with its character that’s crucial to its emotional credibility — and which has no real precedent in Kieslowski’s work previous. If we didn’t feel like we really knew this woman, feel like we know what she’s feeling though she expresses it only with her presence on screen and a very few words, we’d have little patience for the existential rigmarole the director intends to put us through.

I discovered Kieslowski with this film, and I very much wanted him to be a young filmmaker. Of course, he wasn’t particularly young — he made Double Life at the age of 50, and when you have that piece of knowledge, the film transforms a little bit. You realize that the director is looking on his young actress from the vantage of someone who has a few years in him. You get the sense that there are aspects of her personality – her ability to fully inhabit a character who smiles into the drenching rain, or to reach some kind of communion with an alternate version of herself, or who, yes, possesses such a sensuous and attractive form – that he admires, or perhaps wishes he were able to share. In his essay in the booklet accompanying Criterion’s DVD, “The Forced Choice of Freedom,” Slavoj Zizek makes explicit the parallel between Veronique’s choice in the film – after Weronika has made the fatal choice to continue singing despite her heart condition, Veronique abandons her singing career — and Kieslowski’s choice to continue making films although he, too, may have been aware that he had his own heart problems that the life of a director could aggravate. Whatever — Kieslowski completed his next three films, the famous Three Colors trilogy, with Jacob playing a crucial role in the last film, and retired from filmmaking in 1994. In March of 1996, he died of cardiac arrest.

There’s long been some chatter to the effect that The Double Life of Veronique — indeed the whole of Kieslowski’s output after this film, when he started working with French funds — is overrated. That’s subjective, of course. All I can say I’m sure of for my own part, is that it reveals itself, reliably, each and every time I visit it, as one of the most beautiful things I know of in this world. A+

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There’s been some controversy about Criterion’s DVD version of this film, since the color timing on recent video transfers differs dramatically from the more reddish-orange tone seen on older laserdisc and VHS releases. I saw the film four times theatrically (twice at the Esquire, once at Denver’s hilariously named Chez Artiste multiplex, and one last time at the University of Colorado — sitting in front of Stan Brakhage, who declared, as the credits rolled, “Well, that was a lot better than I expected”) and while I’ve always felt the old video versions were very poor in terms of color fidelity, I have to say that I did not remember the theatrical prints tending to outright green as the newer versions do. In one of the DVD supplements, Slawomir Idziak discusses the use of colored filters that took the color palette into a decidedly unnatural realm. (He specifically mentions the use of greens.) There was apparently some disagreement even with Kieslowski himself about how radical the colors should really be on release prints, and different color timings were apparently tried. Idziak claims that the print that showed up at Cannes featured the more radical colors that he favored. If my memory isn’t faulty, perhaps American release prints (which, after all, had an alternate ending, which is included as a supplement to this release, appended at the last minute) were struck using the more conservative color timings. In any event, the color scheme presented on this disc sounds pretty similar to the one Idziak describes, so I can only assume that Criterion did indeed get it right.

3 Replies to “The Double Life of Véronique (1991)”

  1. I have waited a long time since seeing it theatrically, back in the day, to catch it again. You know how sometimes a film builds a sorta mythology in your mind that it cannot possibly live up to when you revisit it in the home viewing experience? Not so with Veronique. This remains, in all formats, a great, REALLY great film.

    And this is a lovely tribute, Bryant. You’ve done it proud.

  2. I remember a few years ago when a friend of mine told me how much she liked the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors, enthusing that there weren’t any other movies like it. Of course I nearly choked. Double Life wasn’t easily available at the time, and the versions that existed (including my beloved laserdisc copy) honestly looked pretty crappy.

    Did you look at the documentaries included on the DVD? “Hospital” especially is classic Old Testament Kieslowski (as opposed to the warmer, fuzzier New Testament Kieslowski that made Double Life and the Three Colors trilogy)!

  3. Sure did. I almost gagged during Hospital. Those scenes where the doctors are pounding away on some guy’s knee with a mallett (which promptly breaks), or where the guide wire breaks as their prodding somebody’s arm? Horrifying stuff.

    Imagine what being a patient in a Polish hospital in the 60s and 70s must have been like? I’d rather take my chances with fate, mother nature or any other external force over which I have no control.

    As the doctor says in Macbeth, ‘therein the patient must minister to himself.’

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