Saturday, July 23, 2011

Classic Throwback: The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1991)

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1991 feature, The Double Life of Veronique is a beautifully crafted little gem. It functions a little bit like a mysterious jigsaw puzzle, with Kieslowski choosing to refrain from providing too much exposition and placing a lot of faith in his audience to put the pieces together. You feel like he has imbued a confidence, a trust, into his craft, challenging the viewer to stick with the narrative, while simultaneously assuring them that they will find emotional reward along the way. It’s really quite a feat. The Double Life of Veronique is an immediate personal favourite of mine.

Irene Jacob plays Weronika, a Polish girl whose career as a pianist was crushed, along with her finger, when it was slammed in a car door. Having turned to singing, she journeys to Krakow to live with her Aunt. Sitting in on her friend’s rehearsal, she impresses the director and earns an leading role in the choir. On a random day in the street of Krakow a tour bus from France travels through the city square. Looking at the bus, Weronika spots Veronique (also played by Jacob) hop on and photograph the square. Veronique is the exact double for Weronika (her doppelganger), which is something the Polish woman instantly recognizes. They each go their separate ways following this encounter, but share a connection, even if one of the pair has not discovered it yet.

Why the film works so well, and refrains from being confusing, is the fact that Kieslowski chooses to focus entirely on Weronika first, rather than cutting back and forth between the women. That is, until she mysteriously collapses at a recital, and the films shifts the thread to Paris, where Veronique is suddenly overwhelmed by an inexplicable feeling of grief and sadness. Veronique, like Weronika, is musically talented, working as a teacher, and shares similar anxieties about her identity. One day, while she sits with her students during a marionette show, she locks eyes with the puppeteer, Alexandre (Philippe Volter) and their by-chance interaction seems to be more than coincidence.

Mysterious packages, such as a piece of string and a cassette tape, start showing up in her mailbox, which have a double connection. For the audience, they link to Weronika, while within her personal story; the items link to a secret admirer, likely the puppeteer. There is a particularly wonderful sequence where Veronique establishes that the sounds playing on the tape are of a unique train station. She has been challenged to decipher the clues and meet the sender at a cafe there. As she is courted by Alexandre, the film works as a meditation on realms of personality which every human experiences entirely alone; those of existentialism, intuition and imagination. 

This film calls for us to wonder, and celebrate perhaps, the idea that we each possess a doppelganger. Have you ever wondered how you would feel if you were walking down the street and ran into someone that looked exactly like yourself? It would be a little scary wouldn’t it? But it would be intriguing. In Veronique, Kieslowski doesn’t try and attempt to explain whether this phenomenon occurs, but he chooses to explore and romanticize the possibility of the idea. This is a beautiful theme that Veronique shares with Trois Couleurs: Rouge; the unexpected uniting of people who unknowingly share a destiny. 

The wonderful partnership between Kieslowski and Irene Jacob, who reunite for Rouge in ‘94, is a truly magical one. Jacob’s luminous beauty and emotional front-and-centre performance was awarded the Best Actress Award at the ’91 Cannes Film Festival. Her compelling performance revels in subtlety. In addition to the different hairstyle and spoken language, she manages to make both women evidently distinct from one another, despite them both sharing overlaps in emotiveness, sensitivity, existential awareness and spirit. They even carry themselves in different ways; Veronique a little more melancholy about her existence, but a bit more intuitive and intrigued about her feelings. Weronika is driven in her professional pursuits and her strained relationships with a man she left at home, and her father, cause her anxiety.

Technically, it is impeccable also. Kieslowski richly layers his surreal atmosphere with clever use of mirroring and doubling, to distort our perceptions. Using the opening shot of an off-kilter cityscape, the out-of-focus reflection of the city square in the windows of the tour bus and the distorted image that looking through a clear ball creates, he signifies the doubling of Weronika and Veronique’s world. In each of Kieslowski’s films, the vibrant use of colour (for example the dominance of blue, white and red in the Trois Couleurs Trilogy) is of stylistic importance. Here, the image is given a hyper stylized, golden hue, and the calculated movement of the camera, which captures several stunning tracking shots of the women walking, is very impressive. In addition, the use of Zbigniew Preisner’s enchanting score is not only beautiful to listen to, but it pops up again whenever Veronique learns a little more about Weronika and the puppeteer. 

The Double Life of Veronique is the kind of unique film that you find so rarely these days. It is a romance that is genuinely acceptable and believable. What connects people together? There is a very European romanticism at the heart of this story. There needs to be mystery and a courtship that intrigues the other person. There may even have to be a spiritual link to a stranger, who channels feelings, emotions and intuitions to you. While these phenomenon may never happen, this beautiful film examines the possibilities, and if it doesn't inspire you to look a little closer at your existence, I don't know what will. 


  1. When I first saw the film on IFC (when it was commercial free and actually played more art films) some years ago. I really liked it though it wasn't a great print on the film that included the very bland U.S. ending. When I decided to get the film on DVD via Criterion and see it again. I found myself loving it even more as it had a better look and showed the original ending which was a lot better than the U.S. ending from Miramax.

    It's one of my favorite films and I still think Irene Jacob is gorgeous.

  2. I am in love with Irene Jacob! I'm about to start the Blue/White/Red trilogy again. I always loved Red the most, but that's probably because it is the only one of the three I have seen more than once, and probably because it stars Irene Jacob! Thanks for the comment Steven. I share your admiration for this film.

  3. Great write up. It's one of my personal favorites for some of the reasons you mentioned. Kieslowski leaves a lot for the audience to make, but never intentionally makes the film confusing or obscure. It's a puzzle, to be sure, but I'm not sure if there's a specific solution to it.

    Every time I watch it, I find myself coming to a different conclusion about how these two are connected and I think there's something exciting and liberating about that idea. It's a film that's instantly re-watchable to me and since I just got the bluray, I'll be doing just that in the next few days.

  4. Also, on Irene Jacob, she's not in the film a lot, but she has a fantastic little role in Au Revoir, Les Enfants. It's certainly a film worth checking out.

  5. This is absolutely one of my very favorite films in the world and you summed it up very nicely. There is just something so magical about it. The only thing that could have made it better is if Kieslowski shot it in a wider aspect ratio.

    Also I've been fascinated by the concept of doppelgangers ever since I was kissed by a stranger who thought I was someone else. Granted that could have been a drunken lie since it happened in a bar, but I'd prefer to believe it was true...

  6. James, I already want to watch I again, just to see if I can pick up something new. I told a friend of mine about the film and she said she watched it every day for a week after buying it. It certainly attracts some dedicated fans. I have heard of Louis Malle's Au Revoir, Les Enfants. Been recommended it once before, but I didn't know Irene Jacob was in it. I'll check it out. Thanks!

    Bonjour, It's already a personal favorite, and I feel like it's a film you warm to even more on subsequent viewings. I have an interest in doppelgängers too, but I don't have a story as funny as yours :-) Thanks for the comment!

  7. Fantastic review Andy, you've made me want to watch this as soon as possible.

    In fact I feel it's time for me to explore the work of Kieslowski, as I've never had the chance to get around to him. His work seems amazing though and I look forward to discovering it.

  8. Talking of doppelgangers, I think its not just a physical double the story is hinting at, but a mental inner doubles are out there. I personally would much rather meet the later ( :

    Agreed, a great performance by Irene Jacob, the only small thing I find bothersome is there are perhaps too many scenes in bed, I guess Kieslowski had his reasons. I hadn't noticed that the film relied on a golden glow, certanly needs multiple viewings to get all the details.

    Among Kieslowski's best, I'd say. I'm currently doing a blogathon by reviewing the Three Colours trilogy over at my blog, should you be interested!

    from Chris

  9. Thanks for the comment Chris, I'll take a look at your blog and check out your thoughts on Kieslowski. I have continued working through his resume. Having just completed Bleu, Blanc and Rouge are up next for me!

  10. Andy, I have just commented on the film 'Blue' over on Chris's blog.

    The Double Life Of Véronique strangely happens to be one of my favourite films of Kieslowski, and Irène's too, I'm sure!

    Talking of whom, Irène has just released an album (Je Sais Nager) with her musician-brother Francis Jacob which is being sold on Amazon and she has also been performing live with her band in concerts in Paris. Alain Martin's French website at has more news on her concert dates if you happen to be visiting Paris over the next few months and wish to attend one. Also, if you search my website, you will find a number of videos of her singing. Anyway, have a very good evening.

    Bien amicalement,
    Alexandre FABBRI
    (back on-air soon)

  11. Yes, it is a strange coincidence that we are all watching Kieslowski. I was spurred by a discussion with some friends about Veronique, a film I had never seen. Then I was recommended The Decalogue. So I figured I would re-visit Trois Couleurs and watch some more of his films as part of my Director of the Month!

    Thanks for the info regarding Irene. Very interesting!

  12. Either Red or Veronique are easily my favorite Kieslowski films, and I'm due for a rewatch on both. Any excuse to see Irene Jacob, eh?

    Interesting Chris mentions the bed scenes - I thought that, too, but I think Kieslowski might be making some point about the two girls' sexuality. I need to rewatch with this in mind, but IIRC, Veronique is more earthy and open sexually, but not necessarily in a good way, and Weronika is more ethereal and aloof sexually, but not necessarily in a good way. :) At least, I seem to remember thinking something along those lines while watching it, but I've only seen it once so far.

    I've yet to see The Decalogue, which is high on my to-watch list. His earlier films, though, the more Polish, less French ones, seem quite different to me from the Three Colors trilogy and Veronique - less stylistically interesting and less "beautiful" in cinematography/use of color, but still intriguing in terms of plotting. Have you seen any of the older ones to comment? I've only seen Camera Buff and Blind Chance; I may be way offbase.

  13. Yeah, I had no qualms with the bed scenes. Irene Jacob is stunning! I think Veronique is my favourite Kieslowski film now.

    I also think that observation you made about the women's sexuality, is pretty spot on. I have only seen Veronique and the Trois Couleurs Trilogy (which I am now rewatching). But I am going to go back and watch Camera Buff and the Decalogue over the next few weeks. My DOTM is absorbing into August haha.

    Thanks for the comments Jandy. I check into Row Three occasionally. You guys cover some great material over there.

  14. Thanks, Andy! I've been stalling out a bit on the writing lately (other than my largely cut-and-paste columns), but it's still good times seeing what everyone else is writing. Marc Saint-Cyr recently wrote about the Three Colors trilogy for Row Three, too - definitely weird (but cool!) that there's so much Kieslowski-watching around right now.

    I found you through Mad Hatter's podcast - so great to find out about and get connected with other film bloggers.

  15. I know! There is a lot of writing about Kieslowsi at the moment! Chris at MoviesandSongs365 too. The Matineecast is great, and I felt so stoked that he mentioned me there. If I remember, he also chose Row Three as one of his blogs to check out! Thanks for reading. I post pretty much daily, so I hope you find more than interests you in the future! :-)