Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Double Life of Veronique (1991) - Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski

Flashback 10 years ago to me in college at The University of Illinois. When I wasn’t in the classroom, I was spending lots of time watching films. I remember spending a great deal of time at the Urbana Public Library perusing their massive collection of VHS tapes, which included an incredible volume of classic American and foreign films. Many of the first viewings I had of films by Bergman, Godard, Bunuel etc. occurred because I rented these videos, often by the dozen at a time from the library. And they were free! I distinctly remember the day that while flipping through their titles, I was going through the “D” section and I came across The Double Life of Veronique. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure I had seen The Three Colors trilogy, but was completely unaware of this film. Criterion hadn’t yet picked it up. It wasn’t on Roger Ebert’s Great Film list yet. Blogs weren’t yet discussing the virtues of films like this. Even Leonard Maltin’s book only gave it 2 ½ stars out of 4. I remember looking at the cover, though, and thinking wow this looks like something I should see, but not having any expectations at all for what it would be like. It would turn out to be one of the most significant film viewings I would ever have. 

Kieslowski’s film regards the story of two women, both played by Irene Jacob. Weronika lives in Poland and aspires to have a great singing career. Veronique lives in France and decides to not pursue a particular talent (perhaps singing), but is instead a music school teacher. These women are presented to us as having a cosmic connection of sorts that we can't fully understand. The film is an examination of the spiritual, emotional, and physical connections between the two women, and a working out of the concept of these women either being two separate beings connected supernaturally, or perhaps the same woman living two separate lives. This interconnectedness of life is of course something that Kieslowski would explore and refine further in his more literal and political The Three Colors Trilogy which would follow this film. What sets The Double Life of Veronique apart is that Kieslowski attempts to let his story unfold relying almost solely on images, music, and emotions, which all but take the place of explanation and dialogue in this film. It's not dialogue here that you remember, it's the images and feelings that overwhelm you.

I distinctly remember watching the film back then in 2002. I was blown away by the look of the film, with its odd color palette of yellows, greens and reds.  Its very nature screamed of an incessant yearning to convey an ineffable set of themes, emotions, and desires. I was humbled and inspired by Kieslowski’s story, Slawomir Idziak’s cinematography, and Irene Jacob’s luminescent performance. My college-age uncertainties and fears were inexplicably met and eased by the transcendentally sensual nature of the film. It didn’t really matter that I didn’t understand it. In fact, I didn't really want to understand it. This made it all the more alluring. I wanted to disappear into it, be absorbed by it, and remain lost in its swirl and never return.

But I have returned to see it again, something I did recently for the first time in 10 years. A lot has changed in those 10 years. Criterion has it now. Roger Ebert has included it on his list. It has gained in stature, whereas in 2002, I felt like the only one who knew about it. Watching it again so many years separated, I was pleased to learn that it still maintains a significant power for me. In fact, watching it this time on DVD I was really struck by just how visually overwhelming it is. Rarely does a minute go by without a unique visual style or theme coming to the fore. As much effort as most films spend on dialogue or action, this film spends twice the effort on visual composition and innovation. Idziak’s cinematography employs yellow filters, which give the film its unique color palatte, creating lots of shades of green and yellow. Recurring motifs of upside down images, duplicated images, and the instances of “emotional establishings” (as Idziak puts it in one of the DVD’s supplements) or shots presented unrelated to the action in order to establish an emotion, are often jarring, but are always absorbing and essential to the way the film works. Of course, Zbigniew Preiner's remarkable score adds tremendous depth and emotional punch to the images that flash by. For those who care, this film also contains a great deal of relatedness to The Three Colors Trilogy regarding images and themes that pop up in those films.

I haven’t even yet discussed much about Jacob’s performance, which is rather remarkable for the way she brings the film’s emotion to life. There really isn’t much exposition to help us understand Weronika/Veronique, but we don’t need to know because Jacob helps us understand what is essential without needing to say anything. She embodies and reflects the ambition of the film to convey a feeling and emotion with a modicum of explanation. Sometimes, movies feel more like experiences and this is one of those experience-type films for me. It's also one of my top 25 favorite films. There just isn't anything else quite like it.


David said...

I know you are going to paste some screencaps again,but you should do more!!This is a damn great-looking film!!Jacob looks fabulous in the film(not as half good as this in real life).

I did not understand it at all when I first saw it,then I listened to Insdoff's commentary,which helped a lot.After seeing more Kieslowski films,I began to get the sense of the role destiny plays in his films.I re-watched it last month in blu-ray,was blown away again.

StephenM said...

I actually just watched this for the first time a couple weeks ago, and I saw the Three Colors Trilogy a couple weeks before it, so good timing!

I really appreciate your emotional reaction to the movie, though I have to say I did not share it. I agree it's incredibly beautiful--remember on The Red Shoes post, where I said my two most beautiful films were The New World and The Red Shoes? Well, Veronique would definitely be in the top 10, perhaps top 5.

But to be honest, I didn't really get it. And since I didn't have the emotionally overwhelming experience you had, the not-getting-it part mattered. So I was a bit underwhelmed overall. But I'd like to understand it--I'll read Ebert's review, see if that helps. (I really liked Three Colors, though I'm not completely over the moon about them like a lot of people who saw them when they first came out--maybe they've been too influential, but while they were profound and beautiful, their styles seemed a little too familiar for me to put them in that "top masterpiece all time" slot.)

Jon said...

Hi David! Yeah I know Jacob is rather tremendous and ravishing in this film. You are right about the Destiny aspect. Something I did not highlight, but that's a theme that runs through many of Kieslowski's film. Thanks for the comment!!

Stephen- Fascinating that you just saw this as well. My top 5 most beautiful color films include:
The Red Shoes
Black Narcissus
Barry Lyndon
Days of Heaven
The Double Life of Veronique

I personally feel that this film really works best as an emotional experience. I think once you start to break down the film into mechanics and plot or literal meanings, I'm not sure it would hold up as well for me. Perhaps it would work better for you though. If someone who reads this blog has a literal interpretation I would love to hear it in fact. Thanks for your comment though and you're right, The Three Colors does have a high standing that could cloud one's appreciation I suppose.

Shubhajit said...

Irene Jacob looked like a dream in this movie (as also in Red) - no wonder people fall in love with her as soon as they watch her in this movie. And she also managed to bring into her character such fragility & vulnerability & pathos.

"It's not dialogue here that you remember, it's the images and feelings that overwhelm you." Absolutely!!! This was such a ravishing audio-visual experience - the haunting score & the arresting cinematography! Though tad self-indulgent at times on Kieslowski's front(that's what I'd felt while watching it), the film really worked at a deeply spiritual, and even, metaphysical level.

I wouldn't place it on the same pedestal as some of Kieslowski's other masterpieces (Decalogue, Blind Chance, Three Colors, No End, etc.), but this was an enthralling watch nonetheless. Given such small variance & high consistency that one can find in Kieslowski's oeuvre, its no wonder he is regarded as one of the great masters of world cinema (and one of my favourites too).

By the way Jon, it was great reading about your introduction to world cinema - what a gold mine that must have been for you & for so many others!

Jon said...


Thanks for your comment! I'm glad you enjoyed reading about my experience with world cinema. It was certainly a memorable time for me. Jacob is simply spectacular here and in Red. Too bad Kieslowski didn't get to work with her more. Self indulgent....I'm not sure about that but Kieslowski certainly pulls out all the stops. It's not a subtle movie visually by any means. I'm not sure I'm completely willing to say that this is Kieslowski's best film.....but it's right there for me. It's also hard for me to separate my personal experience from the evaluation. It's really an important film for me personally. Thanks Shubhajit. Great comment.

Sam Juliano said...

Indeed Jon. This is quite simply one of the greatest of all films, and one that rewards re-viewings with added insights. I continue to be mesmerized and ravished by this staggering masterpiece of the cinema, which is one of it's iconic director's greatest works. You superbly frame this film's hypnotizing power, which is magnificently negotiated by the light and shadow-dominated cinematography of Sladomir Idziak, and the sublime score by Kieslowski alumni Zbigniew Preisner.
There is really so much you can pose as to Kieslowski's prevelent intentions here, but it's clear there's a lot on the plate, including determinism, which poses that events are reliant on what happened before, the nature of the human spirit, religion and free will, and even a political statement in which the one Veronique will sacrifice here life for the other, beckoning back to Poland's own sacrifices during World War II. But apart from all the issues that can be successfully defended, the film is unquestionably a story of interconnected souls, and love and loss, played out with mystery in what often is metaphorically negotiated in another dimension. In the end it's a film that reaches the most profound levels of the emotions and the intellect.

Again you have penned a magisterial piece here.

Jon said...


Thanks for your tremendous comment, another one of the best comments you have posted here. I love your readings of the film and your assessment of the content and intentions of Kieslowski is surely on the money. I don't have any disagreements there.

"In the end it's a film that reaches the most profound levels of the emotions and the intellect"

Indeed Sam. Indeed.

I'm only sorry I waited so long between viewings!!

Alexandre Fabbri said...

Context. Seen on television the film is artificial and senseless, placed in a superficial atmosphere, of a kind that modern viewers are familiar with and in whose senses can best thrive. Viewed on a theatre screen near where Weronika sits on a wooden bench in a leaf-covered street in Krakow in the Polish October of 1990 holding her heart with one hand as a man exposes himself, then yes, maybe, it would make more sense. Context... Otherwise, it simply becomes a cheap saturated graphical imagery counterfeit of the kind that advertisers rape without restraint for banking commercials on television. October 1990. This is not the Poland of today. Context is essential to properly understand anything of this film. Otherwise it becomes a kind of emotional pornography of the worst kind. One thing to remember is that Krzysztof Kieslowski, indeed all Poles, enjoy theatre. Theatre in the sense of 'theatre' and theatre in the sense of going to a building in some street that you have to especially dress up for, walk down the street to and sit amongst strange people like me. It was Kieslowski's intention before he was talked out of it, to screen 17 versions of this film, made up from different bits of all the footage shot, at 17 different theatre houses in Paris that his audience would have to walk out to. He was to do the same and check out the audience reactions whilst there. It would have been fun for him. IMDB then would have had to list the 17 versions of the film too. Then the film critics would have to put their 17 different meanings to the film. Ha-ha.

Alexandre Fabbri said...

I almost forgot. Here's a bit of Irene making holes in air. You know what that means... don't you?

Jon said...

Thanks for your comments. It appears you have a great deal of knowledge on the film and I do like your insistence on understanding the context. Surely there is a lot going on here and the political atmostphere of Poland at the time can be felt here. Kieslowski's films definitely have a distinct vibe examining the New Europe.

Arion said...

Kieslowski is an amazing director. Haven't seen this one, though.

Just by looking at your avatar (that famous scene from Manhattan) I can tell you love films. So I'm guessing you might want to check out my blog:


Jon said...


Thanks for stopping by! If you like Kieslowski then you HAVE to check this film out. It's visually so ambitious and is a knockout of a film. See it soon!