The late Krzysztof Kieslowski was one of the most overrated of European filmmakers and few films demonstrate the drawbacks in his approach more than The Double Life of Veronique (1991), regarded by many to be his best film.
East European cinema during the communist era was – with some exceptions – a consciously political cinema although within the former Soviet Union itself films could be different, with major filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov whose concerns were not particularly political. It will of course be contentious to assert that cinema can be ‘apolitical’ – because of the truism that all texts serve a political purpose – but films from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary before the Gorbachev era foreground politics and history in a compulsive way not witnessed in western European art cinema of the same period. If one were to classify these films, they would (largely) fit into the following categories: films set in the pre-communist period (e.g. Andrej Wajzda’s Promised Land – 1975), those set during the revolution (e.g. Miklos Jancso’s The Red and the White – 1967), the films set during the Nazi occupation (e.g. Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains – 1966), films with contemporary subjects and with overt or covert political implications. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Polish films like Camera Buff (1979) and Blind Chance (1987), by and large, belonged to the last category but it is for his later non-political films that Kieslowski won acclaim around the world.
In writing about the use of the photograph in Mao’s China, Susan Sontag speculates about the way the communist state polarized everyday activity so acutely that there was no longer such a thing as private life, the ‘mythical space’ so cherished in the western democracies. While Russia may have been too vast a cultural space to be contained thus by politics, there was perhaps a similar polarization prevalent in countries like Poland. We get a sense in Kieslowski’s later films that with the departure of politics as the principal concern, there is actually a paucity of subject matter – because ‘interiority’ has not been cultivated. To elaborate, since politics is not a dominant concern in the West, its filmmakers can explore ‘private life’ independent of history and politics and the greatest European filmmakers achieved renown through their exploration of the self in its various avatars. When Polish filmmakers like Kieslowski and Zanussi (with whom Kieslowski was associated earlier) embark upon explorations of the personal in films after the end of communism they are less convincing perhaps because ‘private life’ is still a recent habit and their films are left without a credible subject. Kieslowski’s later success may owe to his devising a formal method to conceal the fact of the films themselves being empty of content.
The Double Life of Veronique begins in Poland with Weronika, a girl who is an untrained but extremely gifted singer. Weronika is in love but she also has a heart problem and dies during her very first performance. In Paris there is another identical looking girl named Veronique. (Like Weronika) she has had a mysterious sense of not being ‘alone’ – which leaves her after Weronikas death. Veronique meets a puppeteer who does shows for children and also writes children’s books. Veronique has all Weronika’s abilities, weaknesses and inclinations; she senses many of the same things but her life takes a happier course. Veronique has been in Poland where she has accidentally photographed Weronika without knowing it and the puppeteer draws her attention to the picture. The film concludes with her puppeteer-lover constructing for her a story about two identical girls, both called….
The Double Life of Veronique would perhaps not have been possible without its bewitchingly beautiful lead (Irène Jacob) who, unfortunately, is no actress. Kieslowski photographs her almost perpetually in close-up, dwelling intensely on her countenance without ever convincing us that this fabulous creature has anything corresponding to an interior. In fact, considering that there is very little fiction surrounding the girl we are not even convinced that it is the character Weronika/ Veronique we are watching and not the actress Irène Jacob. It should however be emphasized that Irène Jacob is not everything to Kieslowski’s camera, which focuses repeatedly on the minutiae of everyday life — a landscape briefly distorted by the flaws in a train’s window, an old woman hobbling along a deserted street, the contents of a girl’s purse carelessly spilled on an unmade bed, a tea bag spinning slowly in its rich red brew, Weronika’s erect nipple when she is being caressed. Much of this, it must be conceded, is extraordinarily beautiful but it still does not add up to much more than sensory stimulation of a fairly elementary kind. The lighting is also stunning without being expressive. Part of it has to do with illuminating the foreground in one color and the background in another. Kieslowski seems to have also invented in a special kind of mottled lighting that shows off everything to great effect.
It is not that The Double Life of Veronique cannot be interpreted but that it can be interpreted to mean almost anything. It is perhaps like a Rorschach inkblot. It can be taken to be deeply spiritual, it can be about the different people in all of us and (if IMDB is to be believed) it can even be read as a metaphor for the suffering of Christ. Adding to Kieslowski’s dazzle is the musical score by Zbigniew Preisner. I am not sure that it is great music but with Kieslowski’s visual assistance it sounds extremely impressive. But the point here is that the music does not further the purpose of the film (which is uncertain) and it is more as if the film was serving the purpose of the music. Kieslowski used the same trick later in Three Colours: Blue (1993) which is constructed around a highly dramatic classical composition written by the heroine’s dead husband. The music is in anticipation of the ‘unification of Europe’ and although the music is impressive, one is left wondering if a trade agreement deserves such music. In The Double Life of Veronique the music is simply one more component of the Rorschach inkblot that attempts to simulate interiority, spirituality and profundity for the innocent spectator seeking high art in cinema.
<The above review originally appeared in Bikas Mishra’s film publication, ‘Dear Cinema’>
IMDB link of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique