Double Life of Veronique, The: Kieslowski’s Mystery Tale Starring Irene Jacob

A French-Polish co-production, The Double Life of Veronique was directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, and shot in France and Poland under a multi-national financial packaging, starring the Swiss actress Irene Jacob. This is Kieslowski’ first movie to be shot outside Poland, and his first after the collapse of Poland’s Communist Party.

Kieslowsky, 50, is a respected international filmmaker, whose movies are often presented at prestigious international festivals. His l988 feature, A Short Film About Killing, a longer version of one of the Decalogue episodes, won the Jury prize at the l988 Cannes Festival, and Double Life launched the 1991 New York Film Festival. Most critics regard The Decalogue, Kieslowski’s 10 one-hour films examining the Ten Commandments in contemporary termsthey are set in a Warsaw housing project, each exploring the Ten Commandmentsas one of the decade’s enduring cinematic masterpieces.

Double Life depicts a highly engaging emotional situation that cannot be easily or rationally explained. In a series of alternately haunting and opaque sequences, the film examines a metaphysical equation with both symbolic and practical effects. Dwelling on the motif of the double, and our feeling that we have soul mates somewhere, the story describes the mystical bond between two identical women, Veronika and Veronique, one Polish one French, neither of whom is aware of the other, though each has intimations of the other’s existence.

The Polish Veronika (Irene Jacob) is a creature of radiant life, manifest in the warmth of her friendships, the abandon with which she makes love, and the passion she brings to her music. Veronika’s world is filled with images that suggest connections to an unseen order. As she runs down the street, she passes a huge statue of Lenin that’s being carted off on the back of a flatbed truck.

In Krakow, on her way to a music competition, she suddenly catches sight of herself that is of the French Veronique, out of a tour bus to photograph a student demonstration. Veronika longs to be recognized by the other, but isn’t. Sitting on a bench, attempting to pull herself together, a man walks toward her while exposing himself.

Most of the film is set in Paris, where the French Veronique (also played by Irene Jacob) seems to learn instinctively from the mistakes of her Polish sister-in-spirit. Though Veronika and Veronique never meet, their lives have countless parallels. As spiritual doubles, both women share the same heart condition, passion for music, fierce pleasure in lovemaking, and hunger for spiritual transcendence. The movie’s appeal is based on the indescribable sense that we are not alone, that we linked to unknown people out in the world.

All of Kieslowski’s films are political in the sense that they reflect his responses to the times in which they were created. Double Life expresses its director’s double life or crisis of identity, a crisis that’s become acute for many artists in the newly post-Communist countries whose citizens can’t tell whether they belong to the East or the West. As an artist, Kieswlowski’ s emotional roots are in Poland but his career has forced him to shoot his movies in Western Europe.

Kieslowski may have meant his story to serve as a metaphor for the emotional dislocation of filmmakers engage in international co-productions, which makes their work feel uprooted. (A case in point is German director Wim Wenders’ American career). Indeed, compared with the taut poetry of the Polish scenes of Double Life, the Parisian scenes are loose and a bit fey.

As in a fugue, Veronika and Veronique are variations on the same themes. He creates two identical women. One is a classical singer living in Poland, the other is a music teacher living in Paris. While each is unaware of the other’s existence, they share many things. Both are left-handed, like to walk barefut, have a sublime singing voice, and the same potentially fatal heart condition. They also seem to share the same knowledge and experience, and one of them benefits from the other’s life. If the first hurts herself with an object, the second instinctively avoids contact with that object at all costs. There are many parallels between their lives. Veronika’s boyfriend Antek stays in room 287 in a hotel in Krakow; later, Veronique will check into room 287. A star-filled crystal that Veronika peers through somehow later appears in Veronique’s purse. The same strange woman crosses both their paths. The shoelace that Veronique receives in the mail alludes to the string that Veronika twirls in her hand during her concert audition. When Veronique spreads the string out in front of an electrocardiogram, she is clearly choosing the path of her life.

At the same time, the two women are distinct human beings, who arrive at different conclusions. Veronika values her music above everything and dies as a result of her passion, whereas Veronique values her personal life over her music and gives it up to become an elementary school teacher. Though both parts are played by the luminously beautiful Jacob, I found the Polish Veronika to be more engaging than the French one.

In Double Life, Kieslowski takes the deepest romantic notion–that for each person there is a double–and gives it close scrutiny. He takes us into a world that merges the most natural with the most surreal and inexplicable happenings. Some critics find the film too cryptic and baffling, since it offers many clues but no easy explanations.

Double Life is his most lyrical and beautiful film to date, but it’s also his most mysterious, enigmatic, and elusiveby design. Unfolding as a dreamlike fable-puzzle, Double Life abounds with poetic images, such as when Veronika stands in a downpour singing ecstatically, with her eyelids fluttering to keep out the drops.

The whole movie is enveloped by a mystical sense that life is controlled by forces that are beyond human or rational comprehension, and Kieslowski finds the perfect visual corollary to convey that sense of mysticism with grace, beauty, and elegance.

It’s one of the few movies this season that I cannot wait to see again.