Criterion // 1991 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // February 14th, 2011
Each of us is matched somewhere in the world, by our exact double -- someone who shares our thoughts and dreams.
Krzystof Kieslowski was fifty when he made The Double Life of Veronique, and it is the film of either a much younger or older man. The film seems the work of a much younger man because every frame drips with the a kind of optimistic love for humanity, but it seems the work of an older man because every frame is also tinged with a warm orange melancholy. Kieslowski had a very strange career for an internationally acclaimed auteur, directing more documentary shorts and TV projects than feature films proper. Then came The Double Life of Veronique, only five years before the director's early death, and his place in the pantheon of international directors was assured, as was the legacy of his star, Irène Jacobs. Criterion initially released the film in a deluxe two-disc set in 2006, and this Blu-ray is a direct port of that wonderful release. The upgraded audio and video almost certainly warrant an upgrade for fans of the film.
Véronique (Irène Jacobs, Three Colors: Red) lives in Paris, while Weronika (also Irène Jacobs) lives in Poland. Both are promising young singers, and aside from a chance encounter through the windows of a bus, they know nothing of the other's existence. When Weronika's singing career is cut short, Véronique senses it and abandons her own singing to teach. She becomes involved with a marionette maker and slowly begins to discover herself.
The literary critic Tzvetan Todorov defined the fantastic as that genre that refuses to make us (or the characters) choose between a natural and supernatural explanation. In that light, The Double Life of Veronique is a wonderful example of the fantastic. The film makes no attempt to offer us a natural explanation for its doubles (like long-lost twins, or some statistical argument about genetic variation), nor does it offer a supernatural one (like ghosts, or demons). No, we're left as viewers to simply wonder at the connection between these two women, about the connections between all of us as humans. Luckily, Kieslowski doesn't intellectualize this questions, instead opting for a kind of poetic vision that carries us past the bare plot and into a dream-like realm of imagination.
I fully support the idea that film can be an art, but The Double Life of Veronique reminds me how rarely films try to aspire to the kind of beauty offered by some of our canonical paintings and sculptures. From first frame to last, The Double Life of Veronique uses color, composition, and lighting to create one of the most simply beautiful films I've ever had the pleasure to sit through. More significantly (at least to me) is that Veronique doesn't beat viewers over the head with its beauty. Because every frame is like an exquisite painting, none of them particularly stand out, which only reinforces the kind of dreamlike aura of the narrative structure. Even if you don't care about the characters or the story or its philosophical implications, The Double Life of Veronique should be seen simply for its basic aesthetic beauty.
Speaking of beauty, Irène Jacobs is the muse and the anchor of Veronique. Neither of her characters have much to say with their words, but through Kieslowski's camera each line of her face speaks volumes. If ever The Passion of Joan of Arc was to be remade, Irène Jacobs should be first in line for the title character based solely on her performance here. Aside from a few male companions for the Veronicas, most of the rest of the cast are older character actors who contribute to the dreamlike state of the film due to their contrast with Irène Jacobs.
Unsurprisingly, The Double Life of Veronique has been given a wonderful Blu-ray presentation by Criterion based on their previous DVD. First, the transfer. In a word: stunning. I've never seen the film before, but I'm struggling to find anything to nitpick about. Certainly there are some bold color choices in the film that any digital medium would struggle to capture, but the warm, orange glow in many scenes looks rich. Detail is strong throughout, skin tones look as natural as the various filters used by Kieslowski and his director of photography allow. Even blacks are nice and inky. Considering the film is twenty years old at the time of this Blu-ray's release, I'd say this transfer is perfect. The audio stands up to similar scrutiny, with clearly audible dialogue and no hiss or distortion. Both lead characters are singers and music plays a huge role in the film, and on the soundtrack it has an impressive dynamic range.
With a transfer like this, Criterion could have probably gotten away with a barebones disc, but instead they opted to fill this Blu-ray chock full of all the extras found on their DVD release. The extras start with a commentary by Kieslowski scholar Annette Insdorf that shares a lot about Kieslowski's life as well as his themes and production techniques. Next, Miramax insisted on an alternate ending for American audiences, which is included here. It's an interesting curio, but the director's original intent makes more sense. As I mentioned earlier, Kieslowski has a varied filmography, and Criterion shows that by including four short films: "The Musicians," "Factory," "Hospital," and "Railway Station." "The Musicians" is actually by Kieslowski's mentor Kazimierz Karabasz, and it's interesting to see his influence on the aesthetic decisions Kieslowski makes when choosing non-fiction subjects. The rest of the extras are interview-based featurettes. The first is a 52-minute interview with the director from 1991, followed by a 2005 documentary "1966-1988: Kieslowski, Polish Filmmaker." We're then treated to interviews with cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, composer Zbigniew Preisner, and, of course, Irène Jacobs. All three are equally fascinating and offer an interesting peek at Kieslowski as a director, especially in the process of making Veronique. The usual Criterion booklet includes an essay by critic Jonathan Romney and excerpts from the interview book Kieslowski on Kieslowski.
In many ways, The Double Life of Veronique is a textbook example of a 1990s international art film. We've got a very thin plot, lots of room for rumination, and a touch of nudity and European sophistication to sweeten the pot. If those things aren't really to your liking, steer far away from The Double Life of Veronique.
It's always a bit of silly fun to quibble with a gorgeous release like this. The only complaint I can muster is that two of the essays included with the original DVD release aren't reproduced in the booklet for this Blu-ray. Since they're available online it's not a big deal, but the fact that this is the biggest complaint about the set should make it obvious how stellar it really is.
For a film this much based on visual beauty, the upgrade to hi-def offered by this Blu-ray is easy to recommend. For those with any interest at all in art cinema or the heights of sheer beauty to which cinema can aspire, The Double Life of Veronique, especially with this Blu-ray, is a film you need to see in the very near future.
Two lives or not, The Double Life of Veronique is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Discs: #48
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (Polish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Alternate Ending