Criterion Sunday 359: La Double vie de Véronique (The Double Life of Véronique, 1991)

The Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, with his much-vaunted Three Colours trilogy (1993-94) was probably my entry into that nebulous category of ‘world cinema’, and for that I cannot underestimate his contribution to film culture. Yet in many ways this earlier film, his first made outside his native Poland, is probably my favourite of his works. It has a lot of the quasi-spiritual themes of identity he liked so much, as well as those imprecisely specific moments of transcendence — ways of looking at the world which seem like they must be metaphors for something grander, perhaps (coming from that culture of communist-era dissent) specifically political, but which Kieślowski insisted were not. For in fact in many ways he’d moved away from the political, just as our title character Weronika remains blissfully ignorant of the protest happening around her when she spies her French doppelgänger Véronique. It’s difficult to put what I mean into words precisely, but I’m thinking of when the camera pans down to see Véronique’s scarf trailing along the ground, or when she moves to the foreground to press her face against the glass, or in some of cinematographer Sławomir Idziak’s experimentation with filming through a plastic bouncy ball to invert the image. Indeed the film starts with an upside-down shot of the night sky, suggesting the film’s doubling at a visual level. There’s a lot of that kind of thing in the imagery, often just brief flashes, like the view from the train window warped by imperfections in the glass, but at a wider level dominating the whole feel of the film, which is shot through a sort of yellow-green filter. In conjunction with composer Zbigniew Preisner’s haunting orchestral score and operatic snippets, it adds up to a sort of melancholy love poem to identity and belonging. Part of its strength is that it never clearly states anything (even in the shots its producer insisted upon for the US market, available as a bonus feature), but trades instead in the kinds of intangible feelings aroused by a piece of music or a striking image. I imagine this could be frustrating for literal-minded viewers, but for me it makes the film all the more enjoyable when returning to it periodically.

(Written on 25 December 2014.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Krzysztof Kieślowski; Writers Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieślowski; Cinematographer Sławomir Idziak; Starring Irène Jacob; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 1997 (and at home many times subsequently, most recently on Blu-ray, London, Wednesday 24 December 2014).

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