In folklore, a doppelgänger (literally "double walker") typically bodes evil or death: seeing ourselves in the mirror is hard enough, but glimpsing another one of us in the flesh is enough to shake us to our core. In Fight Club, Tyler Durden admonishes, "You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else..." Krzysztof Kieslowski's Jungian drama The Double Life of Véronique is a quite a bit less blunt, but still serves as a reminder that our place in the vast universe is small, our time fleeting, and our interconnectivity underrated.
Critics’ darling Kieslowski (also known for his Three Colors trilogy and The Decalogue) is never less than ambitious, though many will find The Double Life of Véronique impenetrably pretentious. Accordingly, the film opens on a haze observed by Polish girl Weronika (“It’s not haze," her mother tells her. "It’s really millions of little stars”), contrasted to a leaf contemplated by French girl Véronique. What follows, as we are introduced to the identical girls as grown women, is a mood piece, its strictly metaphysical concerns reflected in Slawomir Idziak's adventurous camerawork. Who are we? Why does a particular person attract us? How and why do we relate to those around us? And why does one piece of music "speak" to us? Kieslowski's script, co-written with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, suggests a deep dive into the collective unconscious, following the lead of intuition, may be the only way to get close to some answers, and so goes the film, with little concession to narrative niceties.
Blessed with a beautiful voice, Weronika (Irène Jacob, dubbed by Anna Gornostaj) makes her way into a prestigious Polish choir, though she also has on her mind her boyfriend Antek (Jerzy Gudejko) and her sick aunt (Halina Gryglaszewska). One day Weronika sees her double, French tourist Véronique (Jacob, not dubbed), on a bus, her feeling that she's "not alone in the world" confirmed. Indeterminably haunted, Weronika gives her all for her art, the beauty of song. The film's focus shifts to Véronique, also musically gifted and also romantically involved with a man: likewise haunted, Véronique sidelines music (teaching it instead of pursuing it as a career) and finds herself entangled with another man, a visiting puppeteer named Alexandre Fabbri (Philippe Volter). Wouldn't you know it? He has a marionette that looks an awful lot like our girl.
The Double Life of Véronique is a puzzle film, itself a metaphor for life: a mystery that may have a design but, if so, willfully obscures it to force us to pursue meaning. Kieslowski returns again and again to lenses of perception and meaning (eyes, cameras, glasses and the like) and shares with his twin protagonists both an obsessiveness about music, dance and art, and a sense of wonder for small phenomena, like dust falling from a ceiling or the bending of vision through a clear rubber ball. Jacob's performance—listless, glazed, dreamy, beautiful—fits the film's tone, and the motif of her looking into the camera builds audience identification through the use of "reverse shots."
Kieslowski gives the film a soft glow with washes of color (occasionally contrasted to pale light and drained color). Some have interpreted the film's duality to be most meaningful in geopolitical terms: the vagaries of fate for two women destined to grow up on two sides of the Iron Curtain with two different ideas of personal freedom. It's a fair interpretation and certainly part of the mix, but for Kieslowski, the film was about those feelings that cannot be put into words. It's an intriguing artistic goal Kieslowski was chasing, resulting in a film that washes over the viewer and invites meditative contemplation about our awareness while swimming the big river of consciousness.
Criterion again delivers a magnificent hi-def upgrade in its Blu-ray special edition of The Double Life of Véronique. The film gets a gorgeous video rendering that expertly recreates the film's original theatrical appearance, free of digital artifacts. The image boasts a natural grain structure, fine contrast, true and rich colors, and detail and texture much improved from previous DVD issues; it is a film of its time and place, so don't expect three-dimensional "pop," but this is exactly as the film is meant to look. Similarly, Criterion doesn't mess about with the sound, instead presenting a remastered, clean and clear DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track.
Bonus features kick off with a brainy 2006 commentary by Annette Insdorf, author of Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kie?lowski. Insdorf knows her stuff, and knows better than to dictate the film's meaning, though she stokes plenty of intriguing options.
The disc includes (and contextualizes) the film's Weinstein-suggested “U.S. Ending” (5:17, HD), which differs by four shots.
A Short Films section includes 1958 short “The Musicians” (10:35, HD) by Kieslowski teacher Kazimierz Karabasz and the Kieslowski documentary short subjects “’Factory’ (1970)” (18:10, HD), “’Hospital’ (1976)” (21:22, HD) and “’Railway Station’ (1980)” (13:16, HD). Cumulatively, the four films offer an insight into Polish life and Kieslowski's development as an artist.
The 1991 doc “Kieslowski—Dialogue” (52:43, HD) provides insight into the filmmaker's process by way of an extensive interview and behind-the-scenes footage.
The 2005 doc “1966-1988: Kieslowski, Polish Filmmaker” (30:39, HD) is a career retrospective tracing Kieslowski roughly up to The Double Life of Véronique.
The 2006 interview “Slawomir Idziak” (24:18, HD) allows the cinematographer to share his memories of working with Kieslowski and achieving the film's visual goals.
The 2006 interview “Zbigniew Preisner” (21:16, HD) garners similar insights from the film's composer.
The 2005 interview “Irene Jacob” (16:44, HD) finds the actress recalling her excitement to work with Kieslowski and the sometimes baffling process of playing the film's double role.
Lastly, the disc comes with a 46-page booklet with film stills, credits, tech specs, critic Jonathan Romney's essay "Through the Looking Glass", and interview excerpts from the 1993 book Kieslowski on Kieslowski.
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