Criterion // 1991 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // November 21st, 2006
"It deals with things you can't name. If you do, they seem trivial and stupid." -- Krzysztof Kieslowski
DVD covers are loaded with catchy superlatives like "uplifting," "powerful," or "incandescent." An actress is "a revelation" with "heart-stopping beauty" and her performance is perhaps "a triumph" or a "tour-de-force." The cinematography might be "ravishing" and the soundtrack "mesmerising." You often find yourself momentarily caught up in such hyperbole, even though the back of your mind knows that these flashy blurbs are trite clichés. More often than not, such piles of gilded words taint otherwise decent works with the whiff of salesmanship.
When applied to The Double Life of Véronique, however, you might rediscover that these worn-out words once had a purpose. They honestly apply. Superlatives can only suggest how you will feel once Véronique works her magic on you.
And the best part is yet to come. Criterion, a company with a reputation it should be impossible for any company to live up to, outdoes itself on this DVD release. Perhaps mounting competition from Warner Brothers and Fox has spurred Criterion to even greater heights, or maybe the body of favorable critical discussion of this film is so vast that Criterion had easy pickings. In any case, Criterion has delivered a perfect release that can best be described as "film school in a box." The Double Life of Véronique may be "the DVD release of the year!"
Irène Jacob (Red) is Weronika; a sensual Polish choir girl with her head in the clouds and her feet in the wet puddles of Krakow. Weronika unsuccessfully explains to her father the feeling that she is not alone in the world. We later learn of Véronique, a French woman with uncanny parallels to Weronika. The two look identical and share (almost) unique personal mannerisms, yet are distinctly different. Their intuitive bond shapes them both, and leads Véronique to a deeper understanding of love and life.
If you read the charge above, you'll understand that any triteness or absurdity inherent in the plot description will vanish under the incandescence of the film watching experience. Words don't fully convey it. The Double Life of Véronique deals with the spiritual, intuitive, emotional inner world of human beings. It is the stuff of dreams and whimsy and cannot be contained by words alone.
Yet it is my job to try. Have you ever felt like you have a double in the world? Have people seemed to recognize you, or have you ever lapsed into easy, intimate conversation with a stranger? How did that feel? How would you translate it to the screen?
I'm a North Carolinian, but I once moved to Lafayette, Indiana. While pumping gas in one of my first days there, a man walked up and started chatting eagerly with me. He thought I was a sports photographer from nearby Frankfort. Another lady approached me to tell me she loved the Lifestyle spread I did. In the coming years, I was approached routinely, almost bashfully, by people eager to talk to me. Some wanted to tell me how my pictures and the newspaper I work for changed their lives, and some just wanted to renew acquaintances. Unlike any of my previous "don't I know you from somewhere?" encounters, each of these people had no ambivalence whatsoever that I was this charismatic newspaper photographer from a nearby town. In fact, they often thought I was playing a gentle hoax on them when I protested to be a programmer named Rob Lineberger. (Brent, if you're reading this...tell Drew Brees he single-handedly led me to a fantasy football championship. Thanks.)
Having lived through this odd experience, I can say that Krzysztof Kieslowski has brought to the screen emotions and intuitive strands that most filmmakers can only dream of realizing. Attempts to capture intuition and double lives almost invariably lead to failure. They are indecipherable, or worse yet, trite. But in Kieslowski's deft hands, themes of intuition, psychic bonds, double lives, sensual paradox, and whimsy become achingly real. The Double Life of Véronique is as riveting as it is inexplicable.
Oddly enough for a nebulous film, critical response to the film has been cohesive. The points made by lucid critics and film analysts -- many of them in this very DVD release -- had me nodding my head. Rarely has such an ephemeral film led to such marked agreement. The Double Life of Véronique may seem ineffable at the time of viewing, but it inspires concrete eloquence afterward.
What is so inspiring about this film? Let's start where Kieslowski puts his own focus: on Irène Jacob. Her best actress award at Cannes was clearly earned. Jacob is arresting in everything she does, from rapture to sorrow. Our introduction to adult Weronika is overwhelming in its sensuality and its transparency; the character is thrown open to us, vulnerable and uncaring. Kieslowski invites us to revel in her beauty, her voice, her posture and attitude. If you had a crush on Amélie, then Weronika will steal your heart. As the film unwinds, we delve deeper into little mysteries about Weronika and Véronique, all the while acutely aware of Irène Jacob's feminine energy, lithe grace, and open emotional states. Unlike Audrey Tautou's Amélie or any Breillat heroine, there is no reticent edge in Jacob. She is as approachable as film leads get.
The Double Life of Véronique does not technically start with Irène Jacob, but with an upside-down reflection of Krakow, Poland. This subtle opening blossoms into a nonstop stream of altered perceptions. Weronika is often seen in reflection, where her face touches her mirrored face. She sees herself reflected in the glass of the frame that holds her portrait. She looks through windows that warp the surroundings. Kieslowski continually and masterfully reminds us that we are seeing something greater than reality, though he rarely moves beyond the "real" world. Yet his trickery is not off putting.
Indeed, Slawomir Idziak's cinematography and Jacques Witta's editing are powerful reinforcements of Kieslowski's themes. The use of yellow-green filters gives the film a unified air of mystery and spiritual warmth. It is hard to put my finger on why the filters have such a powerful effect, but they transform what we see subtly and thoroughly. Witta makes sure we know exactly what is happening -- until he purposefully blurs our perception of who is who and what is what. The film constantly thwarts a secure sense of time and place, but the effort is playful and meaningful rather than malicious.
I can barely count the number of times that Slawomir Idziak caught my breath with a stunning shot or a telling pan. His reveals are delicate and his composition bold. The camera is so deft and sensitive that it becomes painful to watch. Many times I longed to crawl into the frame and comfort Véronique, to know her as a person rather than a movie character. Other times, I simply marveled at the composition within the frame.
Images are nothing without sound to complement them. Zbigniew Preisner's score can only be described as haunting. (Well, "mesmerising" works too I suppose.) If you don't love music, you will after this. Describing music is even more futile than describing cinematography; allow me to direct you to the Soundtrack Collector link in the sidebar.
To recap: masterful direction, poignant acting, compelling story, perfect soundtrack and perfect cinematography combine in an ambitious attempt to explore the inner dialogue of the human spirit. The Double Life of Véronique is why I watch movies. It is not the release of the year but a once in a lifetime movie going experience.
As for the DVD presentation, it is equally flawless. Let's get the one flaw I noticed out of the way. The 1.66:1 transfer is smooth, detailed, and inviting to the eye. Kieslowski and Slawomir play with textures and colors to heighten the film's spiritual effect. Our perception blurs both literally and metaphorically as we become drawn into Véronique's point of view. But in one or two scenes, the detail becomes actually blurred, as though the transfer went momentarily soft. It is over almost before it begins, and hardly a Hawthorne Birth-mark-type situation.
Otherwise, the release is a wonder. Take the liner notes. No mere three pages of fluff stapled together, this hefty volume is a Cliff's Notes Master's Degree on The Double Life of Véronique. Jonathan Romney, Slavoj Zizek, Peter Cowie, and Krzysztof Kieslowski himself tell us what is great about this film. If you even suspect that written film criticism would interest you (which is self evident since you are reading this film review) then you will love these four takes on the film.
Speaking of takes on the film, film scholar Annette Insdorf's commentary is hands down the best commentary I've ever heard. Have you ever listened to a commentary track where something important or mystifying happens on screen, but the commentator is blathering on about the previous roles of Actor XYZ or how the producer funded the film? Insdorf doesn't do that. She answered my merest hints of questions as though we were telepathically linked. She does so with no dead air and no annoying vocal mannerisms. I'd listen to her talk just because; even better that she is intelligibly discussing a metaphysical film. Better still, her comments never seem like reaches. They are all plausible, even to the point where she provides an explanation for someone blowing his nose in the street.
Criterion also makes the film legible by retranslating the subtitles. From what I've heard from those who saw The Double Life of Véronique upon its theatrical release, the subtitles were its Achilles heel. You might have seen a slightly different ending if you caught that theatrical release; Criterion throws that in and even reveals why there is a different ending. It speaks volumes to the divide between Europeans and Americans.
If Véronique isn't enough for you, Criterion has supplemented her with four short films totaling about an hour. Three of them by Kieslowski give us a taste of his documentary prowess and reveal The Double Life of Véronique's abrupt departure from his preceding work. The Musicians by Kieslowski's teacher, Kazimierz Karabasz, shows us the tradition from whence some of his ideas came. Karabasz evokes poetry from prosaic circumstances, and showed Kieslowski how much can be said through the ostensible lens of reality.
So much for the liner notes and Disc One. There is another disc yet to
The features on Disc Two complement each other to provide a holistic view of Kieslowski and how The Double Life of Véronique fits into his filmography. The most directly applicable feature towards that end is Kieslowski -- Dialogue. We see him working; gently coaxing the performance out of Jacob while listening to technical suggestions from the crew. He then speaks directly on the themes and challenges inherent in the film. The horse's mouth is always a good place to start.
If the short films on Disc One didn't give you a comprehensive enough feel for Kieslowski's roots, then 1966 -- 1988: Kieslowski, Polish Filmmaker completes the picture. This pure documentary goes into minute detail about the director's political environment, influences, and stylistic changes over the years. It is dryly narrated, but intriguing in content and execution. It is basically a soup-to-nuts primer on Kieslowski.
Perhaps the best testament to Kieslowski and the purest sense of his self comes from the trio of interviews with actress Irène Jacob, cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, and composer Zbigniew Preisner. Each knew Kieslowski in different circumstances. Idziak went to film school with him. Preisner drank vodka with him and raced cars with him. Jacob abandoned her vacation in the States and flew back to Europe on her own dime just to audition for him. Yet the three share remarkably similar conceptions of who he was, how he worked, and what interested him as a human being. Jacob's account is most relevant to The Double Life of Véronique. She straightforwardly relates how the pair worked together on Weronika/Véronique. But her focus morphs into a discussion of what drove the film, what Kieslowski was attempting to convey. Her words gave me chills. She laid his aims bare and summarized them with concise grace.
Criterion has been attentive to every detail, from the style of the cover art to the menu explanations of each feature. They reworked the audio, video, and subtitles and obtained accounts from Kieslowski's key collaborators. In short, they have done everything possible to convey his defining work to you with absolute clarity.
Irène Jacob pours much of herself into the key roles in The Double Life of Véronique. Her personal quirks are meant to enthrall you. But because she is bringing her human fallacies to the surface, you might find her quirks irritating. If she does not compel your undivided attention, she will no doubt become a distraction that will take you out of the film. Personally, I was stricken by complicated feelings, almost primal, that hovered in the neighborhood of infatuation, ardor, and compassion. I hope the same for you, or this will be a long movie.
The Double Life of Véronique is tantalizing, almost maddening, in its refusal to spell anything out. At one point, Kieslowski even considered providing a slightly different version for each theater. In other words, the movie is largely about chance and whimsy. As such, the director doesn't care where the pieces precisely land, only that they hover gracefully. There are precious few answers, and the answers aren't the point anyway. The film ends rather abruptly, leaving us bereft of the closure we've come to associate with a film's finale.
So if Kieslowski is so reticent with answers, why the anvil at the end? Véronique's new lover, a puppeteer and author, beats us over the head with a story about two linked girls while Kieslowski beats us over the head with the spare marionette (which the spare Weronika holds stiffly in her hands.) Okay, we get it: God made two of them. Fortunately, this foray into exposition is brief.
I've reviewed a lot of movies and been burned out on careworn themes and genres. The Double Life of Véronique made my spirit sit bolt upright. It flared my nostrils and widened my eyes. It made me ashamed that I have never before experienced a Kieslowski film. Don't let my shame become yours. See this.
Not guilty! Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2006 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2006 Winner: #7
* Top 100 Discs: #87
* Top 100 Films: #26
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Polish)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by film scholar Annette Insdorf
* Three short documentary films by Kieslowski: Factory (1970), Hospital (1976), and Railway Station (1980)
* Short film The Musicians (1958) by Kieslowski's teacher, Kazimierz Karabasz
* Alternate U.S. ending
* Documentary: Kieslowski - Dialogue (1991)
* Documentary: 1966 - 1988: Kieslowski, Polish Filmmaker
* Interview with actress Irène Jacob
* Interview with cinematographer Slawomir Idziak
* Interview with composer Zbigniew Preisner
* New and improved English subtitle translation
* Comprehensive Liner Notes
* Soundtrack Collector