The Double Life Of Véronique Review

Up until this year, Krzysztof Kieslowskis first mainly Western film was one of the most notable exceptions of films not to be released on DVD. The Double Life of Veronique was made back in 1991 after Kieslowski had received immense critical praise for his A Short Film About Killing but rather than follow from the very earthbound tone of that movie and his Dekalog, Veronique has more in common with No End, the first film he co-wrote with Kryzstof Piesiewicz. Veronique carries on that films interest in the spiritual and expands the scope of the tale to an international one. Kieslowski at one point considered making numerous versions of this film which would be different according to the cinema the viewer caught the movie in, but given the cost of re-cutting the negatives abandoned the idea. He did though choose to make a different ending to the film for the American audience. Veronique was rapturously received by critics on its release and won three awards, including Best Actress, at Cannes. Here at the fag end of 2006, we now have at least three fine releases of the film, the MK2 set from France, the Artificial Eye port of that set, and now this Criterion release.

The Film

Kieslowski summarised the message of his film to be "to live carefully". He tells the story of two women, the Polish Weronika and the French Veronique. Weronikas tale is told first and her story serves as a mystical lesson to the life of Veronique. The film does not try to explain clearly what connection these two tales have to one another but both the characters are played by Irene Jacob. To add to the connection the characters represent doppelgängers in more than physical appearance - they both possess unique singing voices and weak hearts, and they both have similar gestures such as playing with a shoelace or eye make up. The characters are different however and it could be read that Weronikas impulsiveness and fear of commitment lead her to a less satisfactory place than where her insights lead Veronique to. Consequently Weronika ignores her health and her need for commitment when the opportunity to prove her singing talent presents itself through a competition and a fateful concert. Unwilling to stop herself Weronika collapses, and the camera, which has been interchanging between her perspective and that of others, swings off as if it is flying from her body to somewhere, or someone, else. We are then in the company of Veronique having sex with a casual partner and having the experience changed by a sudden sense of being alone. Further insight follows and Veronique begins to do the things that perhaps Weronika should have. She finds herself strangely drawn to a marionette play where the dying central character rises again as a butterfly/angel and also transfixed by the puppeteer. Thus begins an intriguing game of romantic cat and mouse with Alexandre, the puppeteer, leaving clues for the curious Veronique. This game possibly leads to an explanation of her feeling of loss and some kind of replacement:

“They were both born on the same day on a different continent.....At two years of them burned her hand on a stove. A few days later the other reached out to touch a stove but pulled back just in time”

The Double Life Of Veronique is a beautiful film about taking heed of the world around you as well as the messages that find their way to you through dreams, insights, and intimations of spirit. Like many of the directors films it is about how our lives are affected by more than we can ever understand and how we affect others the same way, it is a call for care for ourselves and our fellows. The film creates an unexplainable continuity between the example of the life lived by Weronika and the changes that Veronique is motivated to make. This quality of continuity is emphasised through the use of circular images and reflections and we are often shown views of the world through windows or objects like a glass marble. The story itself delights in tenuous chance and mystical motivation, inserting images from Weronikas life into Veroniques dreams and using daring juxtaposition. The join between the two stories is so rough that until a character starts speaking French you are not sure that we have moved into the tale of Veronique. This lack of boundary between the two tales is deliberate with the whole point of the film being that what happened in Krakow can change what happens in France. Some viewers find this mystic quality just too spiritual and too ambiguous, and some critics have decried the vaguery or the implied Catholic metaphors as being obscure and esoteric. It is hard to disagree that Kieslowski has made better constructed films, yet the simple beauty of this film and its naive central idea make it engrossing. Kieslowskis later movies are a lot more simple to understand but Veronique marked a bridge between the darker Polish films and the more lyrical French films. This difficult quality works to make the viewer work harder than they have to in the Three Colours trilogy and I believe makes the work even more successful.

For myself I find the quality of the film to be rooted in how well it connects to the viewer through a personal frame rather than being an evangelical piece from a Catholic Pole. The film doesn't become an anathema to secular audiences as it chooses to emphasise personal rather than religious sensation - deja vu rather than a message from God, perhaps. The film encourages the viewer to completely enter the world of Veronique and to respect what she learns to understand. We are entirely with Veronique in the scene where she listens to the tape she has been sent and we hear nothing other than what she hears, even her own swallowing noises, and we share her desire to find out the secrets of the tape even though, like her, we already know where the answers lead. That these first person effects don't feel like bible bashing or the authorial influence gone too far is because of Kieslowskis sincerity and faith in his creation, but it is also because he fights any influences which don't tie his characters back down to earth. Kieslowski ensures that the world of the film is grounded by using images of age, mortality, and decay, and in making Veronique/Weronika real people. His documentarists eye for telling gesture and detail work very well in this respect as does his use of political background with the film firmly rooted in the downfall of communism beginning as it does with a statue of Lenin being removed from a public square.

The Double Life of Veronique is intriguing and ambitious, it succeeds in enthralling you in metaphysics and spirituality, but surprisingly keeps its feet on the ground throughout. It is the key film in Kieslowskis development from a parochial film-maker to an international master.

The Discs
Criterion present the two discs in a box set with a small book like their previous Amarcord and Ugetsu releases. Disc one has the main feature which has been given a new anamorphic transfer in its original aspect ratio taken from a high definition master. This is the finest the film has looked on DVD as the colouring issues with the two previous discs have been corrected with a green hue replacing the golden one on those discs. The transfer is razor sharp and the print looks nigh perfect after the restoration Criterion have done. The feature only comes in stereo which is a shame as previous releases had surround tracks and the film was originally recorded in surround. The stereo track is excellent and given the high notes of the soundtrack distortion is amazingly absent. The feature comes with a commentary from Annette Insdorf, writer of "Double Lives, Second Chances", which will be rich for viewers new to the film but seemed a little unimaginative and limited to my ears, especially Insdorfs humanist reading of the film. The first disc includes the US ending of the movie which involves little more than the scene with Veronique and her father ending with an embrace rather than the more ambiguous tree stroking. The disc is completed with short documentary films from Kieslowski and his mentor, Kazimierz Karabasz. Karabasz' film equates the creativity of musicians with that of steelworkers and is a hymn to man's productivity. The three Kieslowski films are sly pieces looking at public institutions and places and finding political metaphor there - bureaucracy, surveillance, propaganda and a lack of freedom are all targeted.
More background on Kieslowskis Polish films is found on disc two with the documentary, Kieslowski, Polish Film-maker. Using Polish history as context, Kieslowskis development through the Lodz film school into documentaries and eventually into feature films is charted. The documentary is a little like an academic project and a tad stilted but does throw light on Kieslowskis comments on censorship in the second documentary, Dialogue. Here the director says that beating the censors in Poland was a little like slalom skiing with the obstacles progressively increasing as the censors improved. He also talks through the filming and editing of Veronique and we watch him at work at both. This longer documentary is far more successful and my only gripe is that the transfer is poorly flagged playing merry hell with my players progressive scan. Three interviews finish the disc with two new to this package. Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak talks about Kieslowskis collaborative way of working and their fights over the colouring of the finished film, which serves to confirm that Criterion have got the feature treatment correct. Composer Zbigniew Preisner talks about the director and is very pessimistic about modern cinema. Finally, Irene Jacobs interview from the MK2 disc is ported over. Jacob is delightful and sincere and talks about the close coaching that Kieslowski gave actors as they shot.

The set is topped off by a book with excerpts from Kieslowski on Kieslowski and three other essays. Jonathan Romney writes about the film analysing it from the point of view of both its simplicity and complexity, but makes a rather empty comparison with shallower modern film-makers like Inarritu. Peter Cowie writes about Irene Jacobs part in the film emphasising her use of idiosyncrasy and gesture and her ingénue status. Finally, Slavoj Zizeks piece on Kieslowski is exactly the kind of nonsense that puts you off reading anything about philosophy - he even compares Kieslowskis work to computer games. The book feels a little superfluous to be honest and the sole inclusion of Kieslowskis own thoughts on the film would have suited me better.

Undeniably the best way to own the film, Criterion ace the existing releases. The lovely artefact of the cell of film from the MK2 release is the only extra that would improve this set, and even the articles in the book will at least stimulate debate. My personal favourite of the great mans films, purchase carefully.

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