The Films That Made Us: The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

I first watched Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Véronique during the beginning of my undergraduate course in Film Studies. Nearly eight years later, the Polish director remains one of my idols, he is a true master in my eyes. When pushed to pick a favourite, as much as I love Blue* and Red (let’s face it, no one ever picks White. And Dekalog doesn’t count because it’s technically a television series), I will always pick Véronique. It is perhaps Kieslowski’s most enigmatic film and is about, in the director’s words, ‘things you cannot name. If you do they would seem trivial and stupid.’ Véronique is a film that earnestly reflects on the unknowable but does so not in a deliberately obfuscatory way; on the contrary, as Kieslowski asserts, ‘it is worth investigating the unknown, if only because the very feeling of not knowing is a painful one.’

The narrative presents the lives of Weronika and Véronique, two women living in different countries, France and Poland, in the same time period. They have never met one another but they are, in essence, the same person, completely identical… Or are they? The film wants us to believe they are—they are played by the same actress, they both sing, and they even share the same superstition of rubbing a gold ring over an eyelid. The difference between the two women lies in the choices each of them make in their lives. For instance, Weronika chooses to sing professionally but Véronique, knowing of her own ability and talent, nonetheless chooses not to. Without revealing spoilers, their respective choices lead to completely different consequences. In short, they share different fates.

 Irene Jacob in Kieslowski's  The Double Life of Veronique

 Irene Jacob in Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique

As part of his sensitive exploration of the unknown, the mysterious, the metaphysical, Kieslowski was fascinated with questions of fate, chance, destiny, dreams and intuition. They are at the forefront of other works of his, such as Blind Chance (an obvious influence on Tom Tykwer’s Run, Lola, Run) and Red, but they are not as pronounced in Blue, a film which scrutinises the cold hard facts of death and grief. In my view, this is perhaps why Blue often comes out on top as the favoured Kieslowski film**, because the bluntness and unequivocal nature of its narrative is immediately knowable to many who have been through similar life-halting experiences. By way of contrast, the enigmatic plots of films like Red and Véronique may have a tendency to frustrate those who like to leave a film with answers rather than questions. Véronique might move us with ease but she is a riddle that is harder to solve.

If the choices we make in life are what define us, then in a broader sense, it can be said that it is our fates that define us. Fate is often thought of fancifully as that invisible, manipulative and unknowable force, the hand of Destiny that guides all of our actions and choices in a predetermined way — a point that is illustrated in Kieslowski’s film through the puppeteer, Alexandre, whose actions seem to be mysteriously affecting Véronique’s life.

But fate can be reflected on in a much more down-to-earth sense. Here, I am reminded of one of my favourite ever scenes from Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, a film which similarly delights in perplexity and a director who has also explored fatalism through puppetry (Being John Malkovich link) and, on more than one occasion, explored the theme of doubling (Adaptation). The scene in question takes place at a funeral where a priest is giving a cathartic monologue about mortality, the passing of time, and the futility of existence. But even though the language is anguished and nihilistic, the overall effect is rousing; it effectively grabs you by the lapels and implores you to seize the day. ‘They say there is no fate,’ the priest says, ‘but there is, it’s what you create’. In this sense, fate is understood not only as being under our control but also as a distinctly human trait, an act of creation. Friedrich Nietzsche, often thought of as a philosopher of despair and nihilism, was a great champion of this kind of fate. One of his maxims was ‘amor fati’—the loving acceptance of one’s fate.  

Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman)

Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman)

Two Véroniques, two lives, two different fates. But there are, in reality, an infinite number of possibilities, outcomes and destinies. Of course, from a filmmaker’s perspective, Kieslowski was able to fashion whatever narrative he wanted for his characters, like a God overseeing their fates, or like Alexandre, the puppeteer pulling the strings. It has been said that in the editing room is where a film’s ‘soul’ can be recovered. In fact, at one point before the production of Véronique, Kieslowski toyed with the audacious idea of producing multiple versions of the same film, a different version to be shown in each cinema screen. From this, it is clear to see that Kieslowski actively encouraged different responses and interpretations to his films. He acknowledged the universality of his stories, but at the same time underscored the importance of individual experience. 

Krzysztof Kieślowski

Krzysztof Kieślowski

But even though we are all unique in our own way and we all experience life differently, there is still a sense of interconnectedness in this reality—another theme that echoes throughout Kieslowski’s work. We can effect each other’s lives in unforeseeable and unknowable ways. Kieslowski equated this interconnectedness with personal responsibility: ‘Live carefully and attentively,’ he said, ‘because you don’t know what the consequences of your actions may be.’ This is as much a political idea as it is seemingly mystical. I can’t help but recall the words of the late MP, Jo Cox, which have resonated in recent times: ‘We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.’ Perhaps this is all there is to the relationship between the Polish Weronika and the French Véronique. Are they really exactly the same person, sharing one ‘soul’? Or is it that the distance between them, across borders and nationalities, gets in the way of our appreciation of the likenesses of two separate individuals? 

Above all, though, the film’s philosophical weight is matched—perhaps even transcended—by its sheer beauty. Both Slawomir Idziak’s cinematography and Zbigniew Preisner’s score are perfect counterparts in revealing a world to us that doesn’t quite seem to be our own. Life is shown through both gold and green filters—at once celestial and unsettling. But the film’s real heavenly moments take place when it grounds itself in the banal, everyday mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of its characters: a face pressed against a window pane, an old lady attempting to dispose of a bottle, a distorted and inverted world seen through a transparent ball held up to an eye. Such elliptical gestures are what Kieslowski’s films carry off so effectively and without pretension; moments that bury themselves in memory and reanimate when we least expect it.   

Still from Kieslowski's  The Double Life of Veronique

Still from Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique

* When I think of Kieslowski’s films, one scene stands out above the rest: the coffee cup scene from Blue. If I could have a kind of holographic epitaph over my grave, it would probably be a loop of the exact five seconds of film it takes for Juliette Binoche’s sugar cube to completely absorb the coffee before she drops it into her cup.

** For instance, Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time (2012) poll—carried out every ten years—places Blue over 100 places higher than either Red or The Double Life of Véronique.

[Simon Dickson, Curzon Aldgate]

This piece is part of our ongoing series The Films That Made Us. Follow us on twitterFacebook and Instagram to discover more!

Ryan Hewitt