Have you ever felt that your life, while real in the most personal sense, could also exist simultaneously elsewhere, even if lived by some other person? Just what might that entail? In my youth, I’d often imagine living in France—perhaps I’d have moved there after living as an exchange student, but then, I’d remember the emotion that brings me back to the familiar. And while it is easy to romanticize, one must remember that wherever this imaged place and person resides, that the same problems will exist there—perhaps not in degree, but in kind.
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique is indeed a film of feeling. In fact, this is how Roger Ebert opens his review: ‘Here is a film about a feeling. Like all feelings, it is one that can hardly be described in words, although it can be evoked in art. It is the feeling that we are not alone, because there is more than one of us. We are connected at a level far, far beneath thought. We have no understanding of this. It is simply a feeling that we have.’ He chooses the word feeling, and while I don’t disagree, my instinct wants to instead reach for the word intuition, which is somewhat similar, but evokes more of the body—taste, touch, sensation. Within this film, that which goes on is rarely stated, but implied.
In many ways, the story behind this film is rather simple—a young singer (Irene Jacob) lives in Poland, but upon being invited to perform in a choir, she dies suddenly in midst of her performance. Likewise, another woman (also played by Irene Jacob) lives in France and works as a music teacher. All around her exists a world of color—many greens and reds occupy the atmosphere. Then one day she feels a loss. ‘I feel like I am grieving,’ she says, albeit she doesn’t know why. What has abandoned her? Only later does she find herself within a photo that she took while visiting Poland. It is the image of the other Veronique, and upon closer examination she remarks, ‘That is not my coat.’
In The Double Life of Veronique, Kieślowski has set up a film most extraordinary, where he shows that art is not about the what but the how. As mentioned, the story is rather simple—two strangers who live separate lives go on barely even knowing of the other—only subconsciously might they suspect this different person. In fact, their only interaction is in passing and it doesn’t even occur simultaneously. The Polish Veronica sees the French version of herself boarding a bus, taking a picture. It is only later, upon studying this picture, that Veronique sees this other person, after Alexandre, her love interest, notices. He believes the woman in the picture is she. So, who is this? Another version of herself? The two women live independently, in separate countries, and yet they occupy an intimate space, where each feels the other deeply. Kieślowski never states or over-explains. Rather, he leaves this for viewers to decide.
Admittedly, this subject could most definitely be portrayed rather straightforwardly, prosaically, and predictably. And how dull that would be. Krzysztof Kieślowski is one of the few directors who manages to successfully tell his stories though color (we witnessed this most aptly within his Three Colors Trilogy), wherein the pervasive hues convey the filmic mood. Similarly, within The Double Life of Veronique, deep reds and greens portray her melancholia, and it is as though we can see her on the inside—this character’s feeling, who longs for that something she is unable to name or describe.
Among, there lives a sadness that one can’t quite explain—life feels omnipresent and yet just out of reach. It’s not that life is dream, but very often it can feel like a dream that, only upon retrospect, we notice. As example, I remember as a child frequenting a theatre, and upon one Saturday night, before the feature, I bumped into an old lady who said, ‘Oh excuse me, honey,’ and yet at that moment I felt I was in a dream. It happened oddly and yet I always remembered it. Just where is that old lady now? Did she enjoy the film as much as I?
I noticed a similar theme in that of Red, where humans exist among the randomness. Kieślowski seemed to profess an affinity for chance; how simultaneously this same life could be existing elsewhere. Directions are equal—north is as near as west:
Kieślowski is most clever in his rendering of these moments within memory. Our times on this earth are ultimately reduced to recollection, once we are gone. And how easily it would be to have another life happen, where we might chance upon an earlier version of ourselves awaiting some other fate.
Poetic references are captured within The Double Life of Veronique, such as when Alexandre, who has just undergone a tryst with the French Veronique, has constructed two puppets representing her. When she asks why he has two, he informs her how delicate they are. When one is damaged, there is always the other. Furthermore, as children, the Veroniques see different scenes—one child notices a spring leaf and the other finds the stars. Both contain a Romantic view of the world that remains with them into adulthood. In another moment, Veronique retrieves a shoestring from the trash that once again carries an element of attachment—this string meant to hold some other object together, within which she finds some sentiment.
Perhaps the film’s crux is the question of wonderment—have you ever felt like you could live two lives, one as yourself and the other as someone else? Would you accept that you felt this or just come to dismiss it? Just where does one person end and the other begin? Think of how most sci-fi films have asked something similar, but then go on to offer a functional explanation. Here, there is only feeling. The final scene is that of Veronique reaching out her hand to touch the trunk of a tree. Quite possibly this moment evokes the Tree of Life, but even more so lives the internal sensation that crosses over into the tactile. We feel not just on the inside. Our hands are mobile, and they reach and touch. Sometimes it’s the feeling that invites the reason.
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More from Jessica Schneider: On Elliott Smith: Nickolas Rossi’s “Heaven Adores You” (2014), They Too Are We: Reviewing Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, USA” (1976), Ethereal Circle: On René Laloux’s “La Planète sauvage” (“Fantastic Planet”, 1973)