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THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Irène Jacob, Philippe Volter, Sandrine Dumas, Wladyslaw Kowalski, Claude Duneton, Bruce Schwartz
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Audio: Polish, French stereo 2.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen
Studio: Criterion
Features: Annette Insdorf commentary, three Kieslowski short films, The Musicians short film, Kieslowski's Dialogue documentary, 1966-1988: Kieslowski Polish Filmmaker documentary, three interviews, alternate ending, booklet and essays
Length: 97 minutes
Release Date: November 21, 2006

"I feel like I'm not alone in the world."

Film ****

Our world is one fraught with double lives.  We wear deceptive masks divulging little of our private contemplations.  We cherish conformity, relinquishing individuality to become ensconced within a pell-mell human throng of indistinction.  What becomes of the vibrancy of youth that the elysian passion of our dreams is subjugated by a dreary onset of years?

Unfulfilled goals, avenues not explored - the resonance of such disparate paths ultimately disillusions us.  The persons we have become seldom resemble idealistic visions once harbored.  Our superficial countenances do not suffer to divine the esoteric depths of our souls within.  We become incomplete, as spirits torn asunder, our dreams dispersed, frustrated by a blighted existence denuded of what regal inclination once resided in our hearts.

To live is to dream.  To dream is to live.  Must we be so fated to navigate a plotted course, or can our aspirations beckon us along a truer path, to fulfill that which evades us in the duplicity of an unadorned life's journey?

Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Double Life of Véronique is just such a meditation upon pre-destiny versus self-determination.  Less a conventional narrative than an evocative fable, this film considers the search for true identity, an attempt to grasp this nebulous concept of how our lives may be defined by our actions or desires, or lack thereof.  Véronique of the film's namesake is one-half of a kindred whole, a beguiling French woman whose life choices seem verily linked to those of a seemingly unrelated young woman, Weronika of Poland.

Perhaps these two women are spiritual mirror images of one another, each's life reflecting the outcome of one possible vocational or philosophical path.  Véronique and Weronika have never met, never exchanged words, yet there exists an indelible bond between them.  Is all of humanity comprised of just such individuals who, though separated by vast physical or temporal means, are nonetheless connected through some greater, bridging sub-consciousness?  If the one should singe a finger, does not the other, distance or time notwithstanding, feel an intuitive twinge of hesitancy near a warm flame?  To what degree are the paths of individual lives predicated?  Are we but puppets acquiescing to the preordained whims of fate, or do we to some inestimable fraction control our destinies?

Véronique and Weronika share one true love - the common language of music.  It is their poetic voice, a lyrical tongue that unites these women beyond bounds of ethnicity or the spoken verse.  Weronika's talent for song is as an instrument of angelic consonance, illuminating before her a path of potential prosperity in the realm of music.  Yet perhaps the final price of her gift will be too great, for like a lithe ballerina of story spinning away furthermore in red shoes, so too will Weronika sacrifice dearly for her art.

Véronique has similar musical aspirations, but at a pivotal juncture in her life, she abruptly chooses to abandon her vocation.  Where Weronika's tale concludes in melancholic overtones, so Veronique's tale begins, albeit in the midst of self-doubt born from a sense of inexplicable loss.  Does Veronique somehow feel Weronika's strife, and in so doing, shun a life's own aspirations and ambition?  Véronique searches for a new purpose to her existence, and thereupon does the film begin to explore the novelty of a freedom to dictate the course of one's life.

True freedom is what one makes of it.  To one, freedom may be the opportunity to shed inhibitions, achieving one's dream no matter to what end.  To another, freedom may be the right to choose, whether it may deviate from a preset purpose or whether it may avoid the consequences of past faults.

The Double Life of Véronique can be approached from many levels.  It is, most simply, a love story.  In its broadest strokes, the film portrays a passion for one's art or the fundamental passion between man and woman.  The film can also be considered a solipsistic meditation on self-determinism and one's ability to transcend or transform a presupposed fate.  Thematically, the film postulates the manifest concept of second chances, wherein errors of a wayward past may be heeded, the divergent path re-pondered and approached.

The Double Life of Véronique can even be viewed as a political morality tale of opposing dogmas - the socialist oppression of an Iron Curtain suppressing and stifling innocence and creativity, as embodied by Poland's Weronika, in contrast to a democratic freedom of expression and choice, as represented in a kindred sister, France's Véronique.  How so are the women's worlds so very dissimilar?  Krakow in the film appears as a mirror image of France's Clermont-Ferrand, yet even so, Weronika ultimately cannot escape from the political upheaval within her society.  The wave of mourning that subsequent engulfs her "twin" Véronique from afar is suggestive of an unjust reality beyond the influence of these two equally gifted women, condemning the one to languish while allowing the other to prosper.

As physical laws propose a string theory uniting the forces of the known universe, so perhaps a metaphysical string ties all beings, large or small, in some aspect to one another.  Such a string motif persists throughout The Double Life of Véronique, inhabiting the film with a hauntingly poignant ambiance.  Véronique and Weronika are connected, their fingers entwined in thread, in intimacy wistfully pulling a string in a hand's grasp, in agitation pondering a thread's path along a sheet of transcribed music or the arrhythmic tracings of a pained heart (and what is an electrocardiogram if not the very visual representation of the string of life itself)?  A soiled rope signals the close of Weronika's portion of the tale and bears witness to Véronique's emergence into the film's limelight.  A mysterious shoelace arrives by mail for Véronique, sender and point of origin unknown, suggesting that neither life nor death, distance nor proximity, may break this bond, even if its symbolic gesture remains obscure to its recipient.  Most telling of all is the presence of a puppeteer in the latter half of The Double Life of Véronique.  Is he simply a token lover, an allegorical emblem, or perhaps the suggestion of an omnipresence controlling all destiny?

Krzysztof Kieslowski, in crafting this film, has posed a fundamental question about the very nature or purpose of life itself.  It is an ultimate question that yields no conclusive answer, nor may there ever be truly a universal answer.  Perhaps life and truth can only be defined on an individual basis, and whether for siblings, for friends, or for complete strangers worlds apart, what is true or real for one may be merely a whimsical dream for another.

The Double Life of Véronique is not a film that provides simple answers, nor is it a film contented with bluntly concrete statements.  It is a softly nuanced and introspective work, and deliberately so.  As hypnotic as an incandescent candlelight spilling forth prismatic colors, as defiantly abstract as a Jackson Pollack painting, The Double Life of Véronique is as close to visual poetry as conceptually feasible in contemporary cinema today.

Video ****

One of the film's greatest assets is Sławomir Idziak's dreamlike cinematography, and The Double Life of Véronique looks absolutely stunning in this transfer.  The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio.  The transfer was created from the 35mm original negative and color corrected.  If your only experience of The Double Life of Véronique has been from faded VHS copies, be prepared to be astounded by the superb visual quality of this DVD.

Audio ****

The audio is in Polish and French 2.0 stereo with a haunting score by Zbigniew Preisner.  Some music is sung in old Italian, too.  Irène Jacob, a Swiss actress, learned fluent Polish for her dual role as Weronika/Véronique, although the dialogue, what little there exists of it, is rendered mostly sotto voceThe Double Life of Véronique is decidedly more a visual and musical film than a dialogue-driven one.

Features ****

Criterion has delivered a superlative two-disc set for The Double Life of Véronique.  The film is presented on the first disc, which also includes a five-minute alternate U.S. ending, four short documentary films, and an audio commentary.

The first of the four short films is The Musicians (10 min., 1958) by Kazimierz Karabasz, one of Kieslowski's film professors and a major influence upon the director as a young student.  The Musicians was one of Kieslowski's favorite short subjects and concerns workers in an industrial town who by night transform into brass and reed musicians.  The film basically documents a rehearsal session.

Factory (17 min., 1970) is the first of three Kieslowski shorts on this disc.  It was one of Kieslowski's first productions following his graduation from the Lodz Film School.  This short film offers documentary footage of industrial workers on the job intercut with scenes of upper management haggling nervously over factory inefficiency and the perpetual headaches associated with attempts to modernize within a communist society.

Hospital (20 min., 1976) documents a typically chaotic and gory day in the life of emergency doctors and trauma surgeons at a hospital.  It's Gray's Anatomy, Polish-style.  Hospital was one of Kieslowski's last documentaries, following which he would begin to concentrate on making feature-length films.

Railway Station (12 min., 1980) is a veiled critique of communist oppression.  A propagandistic broadcast echoes aloud in a train station while bored passengers loiter about, awaiting oft-delayed trains.  An ominous tone prevails throughout this film.  Big Brother is watching, always.

The main bonus feature on this disc is an audio commentary by film historian Annette Insdorf.  She discusses common themes uniting the director's films and especially draws comparisons between similar characters from Decalogue and The Double Life of Véronique, pointing out multiple visual rhythm schemes and leitmotifs throughout the latter film.  Insdorf also remarks about the film's various alternate cuts and deleted scenes; too bad none of these experimental versions have been included with this Criterion release.

Disc Two opens with Kieslowski's Dialogue (52 min.), a rare 1991 interview with Kieslowski interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage from The Double Life of Véronique.  Kieslowski reveals himself to be a highly intelligent and articulate director.  He discusses at length his personal philosophy on the filmmaking process and his interpretations of The Double Life of Véronique's characterizations, perhaps foreshadowing the themes within his greatest cinematic achievement to come, the Three Colors Trilogy.  Kieslowski's Dialogue is a very thoughtful and worthwhile making-of documentary, not the usual promotional gush piece typically found on DVDs.

A new documentary, 1966-1988: Kieslowski, Polish Filmmaker (30 min.), examines Kieslowski's career from his early days as a film student through A Short Story about Killing, an expansion of a Decalogue segment, and The Double Life of Véronique, his international breakthrough film.  This excellent documentary opens with a description of the political backdrop of postwar communist Poland, the working environment for graduates of the Lodz film school.  The new generation of directors who emerged from this school tended to embrace a certain degree of artistic independence, daring to challenge the propagandistic positivism of social realism in communist cinema and the nationalized Film Polski.  Kieslowski was one of those directors, and his objections to communist oppression can be noted in his early documentary shorts, a few of which are provided on Disc One.  Following the social and political unrest of 1970's Poland, which led to an ideological shift in the Polish film industry towards a "cinema of Moral Concern," Kieslowski began to experiment with the feature film as a suitable medium for reaching out to a broader audience about problems of corruption within Polish society.  While this documentary concentrates mostly upon Kieslowski's works, it remains an invaluable supplement to Polish cinema in general, allowing these films to be regarded within their proper sociopolitical context.

There are three additional interviews.  The first interview (24 min.) is with cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, who worked with Kieslowski on several films, including Blue.  In America, he is perhaps best-known as the cinematographer for Black Hawk Down.  In this interview, Idziak discusses his early documentary work with Kieslowski, who he knew from film school, and describes how Kieslowski developed his expressionistic style.  Much of Idziak's comments revolve around experiments with the look and color palette for The Double Life of Véronique.

Composer Zbigniew Preisner appears in the second interview (21 min.).  As Kieslowski's favorite film composer, Preisner made seventeen films with the director over a nine-year period.  Preisner discusses his background in music as well as his various scores for Kieslowski's films, although the interview's focus is on the haunting score for The Double Life of Véronique.  Preisner also reveals the truth about composer Van Den Budenmayer, whose music is prominently featured in The Double Life of Véronique and Decalogue.

The final interview (17 min.) is with star Irène Jacob.  The actress describes her first audition and interview with Kieslowski and the preparations for her dual role.  Jacob offers some insight into Kieslowski's directorial style and reveals that there were at least fifteen different edits of the film (Preisner in his interview suggests as many as twenty-one different cuts).

Lastly, there is a very handsome, 64-page booklet containing cast and crew credits for The Double Life of Véronique, numerous photographic stills from the film featuring a luminous Irène Jacob, and several new essays, too.  "Through the Looking Glass," by Jonathan Romney, attempts to summarize the film's plot, its myriad themes, and the connection between the characters of Véronique and Weronika.  "The Forced Choice of Freedom," by Slavoj Zizek, explores the plausible multiple realities within various Kieslowski films, even suggesting a prescient tone in these films paralleling Kieslowski's own vocation and ultimate fate.  "Kieslowski's Muse," by Peter Cowie, celebrates Irène Jacob's performance in The Double Life of Véronique.  The final and longest selection, occupying the remaining half of the booklet, is an excerpt from Kieslowski on Kieslowski.  These direct words from Kieslowski himself display the director's sense of verbal wit and anecdotal storytelling as he reminisces about the production of The Double Life of Véronique and his own approach to filmmaking and editing.

BONUS TRIVIA:  The Double Life of Véronique's original title was The Choir Girl, and Krzysztof Kieslowski originally envisioned American actress Andie MacDowell in the film's dual role.

Summary:

The Double Life of Véronique is as a sensual dream imagined upon the canvas of film.  A surreal portrait of emotional bonds and desires, this incredible masterpiece well-deserves its deluxe treatment in this Criterion release, which receives my top recommendation as one of the best DVD releases of the year!

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