The great Polish/French director Krzysztof Kieslowski, who in the early 1990s gave the world the colour trilogy (Red, Blue and White) once said that what he looked for in a story were similarities. "People are of course divided by politics, religion, race and passions, but they also have a lot in common. Whether monarchists, republicans or communists, they still feel love, pain and hate, jealousy, they fear death and feel in general the same way. In other words, a religious person would suffer from toothache as an atheist would. And I always try to describe the toothache. If I succeed, I believe that everybody will be able to understand me because everyone knows exactly what it means to have a toothache. The country where it happens is not important", he once said.
Kieslowski’s statement is particularly relevant in this age when the confrontational (but often merely pseudo-confrontational) and the "challenging" are prized epithets by the art and film worlds. Such ideas about filmmaking provide a strong clue to the work of the director largely considered cinema’s last great auteur who plumbed with Bergman-level artistry the depths of human emotions in a way that typically only music seems to be able to. Kieslowski’s cinema hits the viewer like a song or a painting. The curious thing, though, is that his films are not overladen visually; beautifully composed for sure, and his use of colour was masterful; but he didn’t resort to ostentatious painterliness in the same vein as, say, Peter Greenaway. Kiewslowski’s films were narrative pieces which nevertheless found an entry point into the view’s imagination at the deepest level of the unconscious. I see parallels between his work and the post-modern cinema of Denys Arcand, who, despite using a more minimalist, neo-classical aesthetic, also succeeds in bridging cine-modernity with late 20th century/new millenium emotionalism). Kiewslowski doesn’t challenge the viewer, he gives, and does so with boundless generosity.
The Double Life of Veronique, which won Irène Jacob’s Best Actress award at Cannes in 1991, is a case in point. Exploring a simple story based on the myth of the ‘twin soul’, the film is a heady concoction of music, spirituality and transcendence that although slightly surreal in principle, is utterly convincing in its execution. The story is also completely indigineous to the medium of cinema because it is totally reliant on images and music – and Jacob’s tour-de-force, expressive and sensitive performance.
Jacob plays two characters. The first and the one who has a smaller stay in the film is the Polish Weronika, a sensual, blissed woman with the voice of an angel. She exits the film when she dies of a heart failure. Cut to France and we arrive at the life of Veronique, a music teacher who is grieving the loss of something she can’t name. She also has a heart problem, but unlike her Polish doppelganger, she is aware of it. She starts a romance with a children’s book writer, but the feeling of loss persists until at the very end a photograph of Weronika she took from a tour bus while travelling in Krakow gives her a faint, mysterious clue to her obscure metaphysical situation.
There is plenty of symbolic material for psychoanalysts to feast on in a mystical story like this. But I’d rather stick to the intoxicating poetry of the film that holds the more sensitive viewer in a state of trance. The rhythm, the colour palette, the cinematography, Jacob’s face and the inner (double) life of her Veronique: all these elements converge to form something as close to catharsis as cinema can get. It is virtually impossible to describe this film using conventional paradigms of film reviewing; its "meaning" is elusive and irrelevant; what matters is the sensorial experience it offers and the feeling of having experienced something utterly beautiful and magical. At this point we go back to what Kiewslowski said about being interested in what people have in common as opposed to their divergences. The response the film provokes is universal. The Double Life of Veronique invites our own doubles, our dichotomies for a peaceful dance and for the length of the film, we feel reconciled.
The DVD includes an illuminating documentary on Kieslowski, including footage of the making of the film. It also includes a short interview with Irène Jacob and four short films: ‘The Musicians’ (1958), ‘Factory’ (1970), ‘Hospital’ (1976) and ‘Railway Station’ (1980). Kieslowski’s documentaries reveal a certain kinship to Frederick Wiseman’s ‘fictional reality’ style: no voice-over and carefully planned cinematography that invests the narrative with a fictional movement that works as a meta-commentary on the subject explored.
The Double Life of Veronique is out now on Artificial Eye.