(to m. r., who discovered this movie to me)
"The Double Life of Veronique (1991)
FILM VIEW; 'Veronique': In Poetry Lies Its Key
The idea was too impractical and expensive to be more than a thought, but the notion suggests the best way to approach the enigmatic story of a Polish woman named Veronika and a French woman named Veronique (both played by Irene Jacob). The two young women look identical, were born at the same time, never meet, yet share some not-quite-conscious affinity. They are and are not the same. Don't even attempt to resolve that paradox, and "The Double Life of Veronique" will work on its own poetic terms. Try to piece the film together like a jigsaw puzzle, try to make it yield some neat message about identity, and nothing will result except frustration.
"Veronique" has recently started its commerical run after being shown at the Cannes and New York film festivals. If the film is frustrating to many viewers, it is partly because Mr. Kieslowski plays with the jigsaw-puzzle approach, creating too many parallels and coincidences, photographing too many mirrors and reflections in windows. The images are richly beautiful, but the director sometimes seems to be scattering clues and red herrings across two countries and two lives.
The first section of the film, set in Poland, follows Veronika as she goes to visit her aunt in Cracow, wins a music contest and collapses on stage while singing. Only after her collapse does the film move on, permanently, to Veronique in Paris. She is making love, apparently content. Suddenly she feels sad, "as if I were grieving," she says. She has no conscious idea that Veronika exists, much less that something has happened to her. Still, as if she had been warned, Veronique gives up her own plans for a professional career in music and becomes a teacher.
But the film's impact does not rely on such clues linking the women; it rests on the poetic images that defy translation and that link them even more firmly than the actual clues. Veronique receives a piece of string in the mail, a mysterious gift from an admirer. It is a sign identifying the man who sent it, a puppeteer and author who has written a children's book about a shoelace.
To viewers, it is a much less literal sign, one that brings to mind the image of Veronika singing and twisting the tie-string of her music folder around her finger until the string acccidentally snaps off.
Early in the film, Veronika holds up a small, clear plastic ball with brightly colored stars inside. It is a talisman that she carries in her purse, and as she rides the train to Cracow it reflects the image of a church and the passing landscape, upside down. Veronique dreams of Veronika's landscapes, and carries an identical little ball in her purse.
Veronique even teaches her class the same choral music that Veronika sings. The piece was composed 200 years ago but discovered only recently, she tells the class. This is another of Mr. Kieslowski's tricks. The music was created by Zbigniew Preisner, who has worked on several other Kieslowski films.
The composition, brand new, only seems to carry the weight of history, just as the film only seems to carry specific clues about the themes of identity. The string does not have any allegorical meaning; neither does the star-filled plastic ball. "Veronique" is poetic in the truest sense, relying on images that can't be turned into prosaic statements without losing something of their essence. The film suggests mysterious connections of personality and emotion, but it was never meant to yield any neat, summary idea about the two women's lives.
Viewers are accustomed to much more certainty on screen, though. In fact, the version of "Veronique" now playing has a slightly different ending from the one released in France. There, Veronique goes to visit her father, stops some distance from the house, and puts her hand on a tree -- a tentative, inexplicable image. But after that version was shown at the New York Film Festival this year, Mr. Kieslowski realized that the ambiguity made American audiences uncomfortable. So he added a scene that shows Veronique walking to the house, embracing her father, finally at home with herself and the mystery of her double existence. It is a more soothing conclusion, but it won't alter anyone's opinion of the film.
Neither would any of the other endings Mr. Kieslowski proposed when he was thinking about the many versions of "Veronique." One would have ended with the puppeteer inventing a story about identical women, a scene that now comes very near the end of the film. Another version would have sent Veronique to Cracow, where she would have caught the eye of a singer who looks almost, but not exactly, like herself and Veronika. These many lives of Veronique would have frustrated some expectations but opened endless poetic possibilities."