La double vie de Véronique (Re) – Kieslowski

La double vie de Véronique by Kieslowski

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Some special places you will revisit if by coincidence you find yourself in that area. Some others you will make a point to return to, out of simple nostalgia, or because you might want to recover some part of yourself you feel you have left or forgotten.

For the record, Kieslowski resonates with me in ways I still struggle to understand. I think it’s his depiction of pain which he turns into a natural poetry, which haunts. But beyond that, I personally connect with him (and you might too) because of the level he writes himself in, in his stories. It is somewhere between insight and intuition.

That level is a cinematic space that no other director inhabits. It is in a few places simultaneously. It begins with the skin of the characters, the depiction of an intimate space, but so intimate that they are exceptional recordings of intuitions emanating. He contrasts it with another depiction of space, but this time external to the character. This is a space he designs with blocks of insights and blocks of intuition. Often a stranger inhabits that space, and along with it, it collides, usually through an encounter. In ‘Red’, it was the old judge, here it is a writer (go figure). And this external space has seemingly incidental forces in its dynamics. Here, those forces work at different levels, some less explicit than others, but each echoing each other.

If you don’t know the story and the way it is told, there are two women (played by the same actress), one in Poland, the other in France, and they are possibly living parallel lives. When the Polish one suddenly dies, the other intuits a change in herself, and through renewed choices becomes entangled in circumstances that bring her closer to the essence of her previous parallel existence.

The thing is presented with the Polish story first, till she suddenly dies, and then we follow the French one for the rest of the film.

There were over fifteen edits of this film, some I imagine with a different structure, possibly a constant alternating between the two threads. But this was the best decision eventually, because that whole business of external space echoing internally works perfect. The events driving forth the second story are remnants of the previous one, like newly unearthed pieces of self, or resonating echoes from the grave. So that as to not miss the point (second world feeding from pieces of the first one), the writer character is also a puppeteer who at the end writes a puppet-play about two women living parallel lives. Get it? The same hands of fate over two disctint cosmologies.

So much of the reason why this works you’ll find is in the intimacies K weaves in, the details that are also meant to have a resonance, and support the larger blocks. A dragging scarf, a drawstring, flying tablatures, a concerto piece, a bouncing ball, the pressing of a cheek against a glass surface (this last one he would transform into a metaphor in Bleu), and many more. To annotate their importance, he introduces a sequence where our heroine is forced to pick up on sound detail from a tape recording(*) of an undisclosed location. This is so she can locate her mysterious admirer.

But there are also resonating larger blocks: the presence of lawyers and court-dates, the parallel musical interests, the ‘boxes’ both lovers give as presents, the self-reference in the puppet-play, the caring fathers, and what I believe was probably one of the first seeds of this rich story: the picture one took of the other which she only discovers at the end.

And yes, the wonderful score, part of which is sung when the Polish Veronique dies, and the same part as a concerto the French Veronique teaches in class.

One thing. There is something with sex as a nexus of the resonance. She has it three times. The first time, we think nothing of it, and it happens outdoors in the rain, the second is in France, and it is right after the Polish Veronique dies, and the third follows the moment she discovers the picture. There is also a fourth time, but it is indirect, it is in France, and it involves her agreeing to go to court and lie about having slept with a man to help a friend in a divorce trial. We don’t see her do it, and we assume she doesn’t after an intervention on the part of the man. But I admit it puzzles me. Although I believe I recall something in Poland, with her aunt, and a lawyer, maybe it was divorce?

I wrote before that you could see hints of Kieslowski in Jeunet, Medem, and Kar-Wai. I take that back. They are fine fellows, no doubt. But this man here is unique, unparalleled.

You can’t teach a competence like this in film school.

*(Incidentally, on this tape recording, which takes place in a cafe, we hear street noise and a car crash, which we later see the damages of when she finally locates her admirer. This crash goes to echo as far as ‘Bleu’ and I am awestruck at how he has probably foreshadowed a story he hadn’t yet written. Talk about an external resonance moving internally.)


Categories: Notes

2 replies »

  1. Melbourne Cinémathèque recently ran a season of Kieslowski films. I’d seen the Colours trilogy when released, but they had a much more profound effect on me all these years later. Also screened were: Blind Chance, Camera Buff, A Short Film About Love and a few of his short documentaries.

    While I haven’t seen The Double Life of Veronica, I really enjoy both your writing and your appreciation of the film. Knowing how quietly profound and nuanced Kieslowski’s films are, I can just imagine how sublime this film must be through your words. I actually own the DVD; after the Melbourne screenings, I ordered everything Kieslowski I could find, including a double-DVD only available on a Polish website ( But I haven’t gotten around to it yet; I’m hoping to catch it first on the big screen. I just consider works by someone like Kieslowski should be collected.

    I haven’t written in depth about Kieslowski, but I think I mentioned in one of my reviews that his films are full of moral conundrums. And you mentioned destiny. How one chance encounter leads to a whole new scenario. Like running over the dog in Red. Or explicitly explored in Blind Chance (and what an amazing ending).

    His films reflect life as it is: full of shades of grey rather than black and white. And then he magnifies it with forceful subtlety (does such a thing exist?). He uses music powerful and seamlessly so that it sweeps one up without being conscious of it, or if one is, it seems just right.

    Watching a 47 minute documentary about Errol Morris yesterday (which I posted on my blog), reminds me of Kieslowski’s style. Like Morris, Kieslowski doesn’t spoon feed the narrative. He allows the characters to unfold in both a natural yet highly stylised way with his own form of cinema vérité.

    I’ve just been describing Morris as my favourite documentary film-maker. While today ordering all of his films on DVD, it occurred to me that actually Kieslowski (as well as Werner Herzog) are right up there with him as well.

    The theme of the Melbourne screenings was “The Moral Matrix of Krzysztof Kieslowski”. He puts a scenario before us and it is morally complex, yet he doesn’t make judgements. We have to make sense of it ourselves. Mature, thoughtful, moving, meaningful, poetic, lingering, profound cinema at its very best.

    I hope to be able to contribute more meaningfully with this title more specifically in the not-too-distant future, but I wanted to register my appreciation of your article and of Kieslowski.

  2. Ha! By chance (and how appropriate with a Kieslowski title), this film screened recently at the Astor, a repertory cinema in Melbourne. I recently purchased the DVD but wanted to see it on the big screen first.

    As I write in my post, the overwhelming depth of Kieslowski’s work is a deep sense of humanism. I have been ruminating about the themes in his work, and after seeing this film, I think inter-connectedness is what all his work defers to. I also many threads connecting the whole of the Three Colours trilogy, at least Blue and Red.

    Like Blue, the music is an intrinsic part of the narrative, and there are many visual parallels with Red. Like movements within a building, car, dog, and more I can’t specifically recall at the moment (because I’m currently watching lots of intense French cinema, part of an Isabelle retrospective). And the same (or similar) little old lady appears in all four. This could almost have been part of a quadrilogy.

    Blue remains my favourite Kieslowski film, but this one is almost as powerful for me. Irene Jacob was simply sublime. And it makes me sad to know that KK left us at such a young age. C’est la vie.

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