Films

Published on July 7th, 2006 | by Hans Fruck

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The Double Life of Veronique

We’re indefatigable story makers, we homo sapiens. The impulse is so strong that confronted with a few incidents, artefacts, and images most of us can’t help but fashion a narrative from them.

Much-acclaimed Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941–96) plays with this in The Double Life of Veronique (1991), a film that gives short shrift to exposition, leaving viewers to navigate their own way through the film’s ellipses.

The Double Life of Veronique is the story of two identical young women (both played by Irène Jacob). Veronika lives in Poland; Veronique in France. The film begins with Veronika. Veronika’s close to her father and sort of in love with a man. She’s a normal young woman in all but two ways: she has an astonishing, angelic voice; and she’s haunted by an ineffable feeling that she’s not ‘alone’ – though when she mentions this to her father, she can’t explain what she means.

One day, on the streets of Krakow, she glimpses Veronique climbing aboard a tour bus and snapping photographs. Veronique is oblivious to her double, though she does unknowingly photograph Veronika, who stands dumbstruck, staring at Veronique, amid the turbulence of an anti-government protest. Later when Veronika collapses and dies while singing on stage, Veronique, back in Paris, feels an inexplicable surge of grief, telling her father that she feels as if she’s ‘lost’ someone.

The plot of this film is only lightly sketched. It’s best understood as a series of beautifully photographed and brilliantly scored rhymes and vignettes. You can see the ‘story’, such that it is, as a metaphor for the differing fates of Poland and France, or as a meditation on free will. However, it seems shameful to reduce the poetry and piercing melancholy of this film to something as banal as a ‘theme’. More than anything, this is a film that strains to capture moments and presentiments, not acts. Its premise is that fleeting, everyday moments – that aren’t normally cinematic or conversational fodder – are often the points of greatest poignance and completion.

Irène Jacob is the window into all of this. She gives a heightened performance as the buoyant and coquettish Veronika, and an exquisite one as the sorrowfully introspective Veronique. This, one of Kieslowski’s most loved films, is a glorious intersection of art and emotion.

–Hans Fruck


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