While it would normally seem a travesty, a horrid injustice to submit a “great formal experiment” like Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Véronique to a(n) mundane/inane critical medium such as this, it is comforting to know that the great Pole would have likely smiled upon it. With a deep understanding of and affinity for the reality of subjectivity, the importance of the individual search for meaning, Kieslowski surely would not have balked to his films being considered in any possible way. He told once of encountering a young Parisian woman who, upon viewing The Double Life of Véronique, became convinced of the reality of the human soul. Surely a film, or any work of art, could not hope to achieve more than that.
It is, as has been noted before, an interesting oddity that such a trailblazer of cinematic form like Kieslowski would have begun in documentary and then shifted into a radically formal, narrative style of filmmaking. Perhaps this is especially fascinating in light of the shift in theme/goal from documentary (political) to narrative (transcendental, for lack of a better term). Indeed, one of the opening shots of The Double Life of Véronique overtly rejects politics as a realm of interest to this film. As the camera moves into a Polish village toward the home of Weronika, we see a large statue being trucked away. The statue identifies obviously with the fall of socialism in Poland, which had only taken place a few years prior to this film. Later, when Weronika and Véronique encounter one another (though only one of them sees the other at the time), a political demonstration takes place in the background. As Joe Kickasola observes, the background nature of the demonstration contrasts with the priority given to the women as they converge on one another. The spiritual and metaphysical interests of the film and its protagonists cause political concerns to pale in comparison. One wonders if Kieslowski became disenchanted with politics and less optimistic that he could effect meaningful change or if the fall of the previous regime in Poland freed him to pursue matters of more importance to him.
The experimentation of form in this film, noted by Kickasola to be Kieslowski’s most formally ambitious work after The Decalogue, recalls both Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky. Apparently toward the end of his life, Kubrick lamented to his friend Steven Spielberg that he had not been able to achieve a radical renaissance of film form in his life. Spielberg pointed to 2001: A Space Odyssey as a formal revolution, but Kubrick disagreed that that film reached the heights to which he strove. Kubrick was outspoken in his reverence for Kieslowski, so perhaps The Double Life of Véronique is what Kubrick had in mind. As for Tarkovsky, Véronique features certain little formal and narrative elements that recall, in particular, Solaris. Weronika plays with a small ball, one Kickasola connects with superstition/divination/spirituality, a ball that hearkens back to the recurring sphere shape in Tarkovsky’s sci-fi film. The spherical form, with its implications of eternity, fits both films and the concerns of both directors. Kieslowski’s admiration of Tarkovsky makes the similarity potentially intentional. Second, both films feature a brief appearance by a midget, and in both instances the characters have a kind of sideshow, carnivalesque presence that interrupts viewer expectations. Like Solaris, Véronique deals with desire and the lack of fulfillment found in (merely) sexual relationships. Moments of extreme intimacy are halted by much higher concerns: questions of existence, the self, and the other. Weronika’s embarrassment over the scar on her finger disappears when she sees on her wall the photographed image of herself, or perhaps of her other. Her smile indicates a comfort through her recognition of the image, which happily interrupts her romantic activity during what would otherwise seem to be a moment of extreme intimacy. Véronique’s lovemaking is interrupted later in the film, but this time it is the absence of both her image (or that of her double) as well as her real double (in the person of Weronika) that causes an opposite reaction: discomfort, fear, and emptiness. Rather than like Weronika’s reaction to the image of content vulnerability, Véronique is first drawn to an object nearby (an overturned lamp, which she clicks on) as an escape, then experiences shame and embarrassment as she attempts to cover herself even during the same type of romantic passion during which Weronika had been so carefree.
As Kickasola does well to note, the film begins with a brief double-preface of both Weronikia and Véronique as children, and in both scenes the time is Christmas. The first shot of the film is confusing to the viewer, who has no frame of reference until a reverse shot eventually reveals the point-of-view of a young girl being held upside-down while looking out the window in the evening. Her view is that of a horizon at dusk, and like her, the viewer sees it inverted. The night sky shows stars, strangely situated “below” the upside-down trees silhouetted against the luminescent remnant of the sun. It is difficult, knowing the context of “Christmas,” not to see here in the film’s first shots an overarching theme to everything that follows. The Christmas star signifies the search for the Divine, or the Other (what Slavoj Zizek would call “the Big Other”). All their lives, Weronika and Véronique have been looking outside of themselves and feeling a strong sense of not being alone, yet never able to put their finger on this reality.
When Weronika sits on a train, she holds up to the window (already offering a warped view of a townscape – interestingly, a cathedral most prominently) a small translucent ball with little stars frozen inside it. A close-up camera shot of the ball again gives the viewer the same point-of-view as Weronika, and once again the world outside is inverted while the stars grab our attention. The women in this film go out of their way to see the world in a different way than is the norm. Véronique’s playful photography while in the Polish town square (accidentally capturing the image of Weronika, her other) show this, along with Véronique’s fascination with the marionettes living out an alternate and yet not-so-alternate reality. Her attraction to the puppeteer is also suggestive of her search for the/an Other/other. Who is the puppeteer but the God-figure of the world of marionettes? Before she knows it is he, someone starts showing Véronique signs of his presence and interest in her. Once she discovers who it is, she is briefly intrigued by him, then offended by his work. While this might seem to convey an image of God as the cosmic sadist, it has been argued that in fact Véronique has misunderstood his intention. By creating two marionettes, one of Véronique and one of her double, he gives her a choice of course in life. In the same way that Weronika‘s death by music causes Véronique to drop her lessons and thus spare her own life, so the puppeteer has a “backup” puppet for Véronique. The image of puppeteer, in all its fatalistic and anti-free will undertones, is offset by the gift of choice he gifts to his marionettes. It would seem that Kieslowski is demonstrating the paradox of divine sovereignty with human freedom, and the natural or inevitable human reaction to rebel against it.
In the end, the image of trees from the beginning shot returns as Véronique comes back to the home of her father. Reaching out, she lays the palm of her hand on a tree, as if it comforts her in its solid grounding, something which has alluded her throughout the film. After the death of her other and her inability to understand the signs of the Big Other, she must return to the paternal realm. While this might seem an anti-Freudian notion, it might be best to understand it as a half-embrace of Freud and a transcendence of psychoanalysis. Whereas traditionally the maternal might be understood as the realm of the domestic, the mothers of both women are dead once they reach adulthood; they have only their fathers. The fathers are both artists, craftsmen. They create by drawing and constructing, using shapes and colors for beauty and for functionality. The picture of a transcendent Other, seen in the puppeteer, seems too much for Véronique to accept. The more immanent picture, offered by her father (not unlike that offered by Weronika’s father earlier), is the one she embraces.
Similarly to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the protagonist returns to earth, the elements, the paternal, following a failed attempt to meet one’s other and access the Beyond. Paradoxically, the protagonists seem to discover that the realm of the transcendent is in fact the realm of the immanent. This is not a panentheism being promoted; no attempt is made blithely to reconcile these competing and difficult realities. Rather, a true paradox is illustrated, one that accurately acknowledges the extreme challenge of encountering the Transcendent while necessarily rooted in the immanent.