The easy path with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique is to turn it into a prison, a detention center to trap ideas and themes, to stagnate the film and hoist it on the petard of its own conceptual dualities and symmetrical intricacies. To flatten it, essentially, by turning it into a psychoanalytic study or a perceptually oblique delivery mechanism for a philosophical thesis about order. Temptation beckons us to plunge deep into the depths of a work, following a shaft of light to the darkest trenches of the marina to unearth its supposed hidden treasures. In doing so, however, we may dig our own waterlogged grave.
By following merely one shaft vertically, down and down we go until our head grows clogged with coagulated, possibly corrosive thematic butter we can’t tread out of; we immerse ourselves in theory or theme only to circumstantially miss, or intentionally avoid, the tumultuous waters and dangerous waves, the tips and turns and threats, of the horizontal surface realm. Ensnaring oneself in the obvious concerns for a film about two women who are somehow linked – concerns like the duality of the world, the nature of order and clarity hidden under the phantom of fate – isn’t invalid as an entrance to the film, but it is inadequate as an endpoint. It leeches the energy out of a work that is too temperamental, too sensory, too liquified to turn brittle with the ice ray of a monogamous, monotone message or meaning.
Simply turning the film into a thesis on human interconnectedness denies, for instance, the rapturous elegance of Irene Jacob’s embodied transcendence in the opening moments (Jacob plays both of the film’s main characters, Weronika and Veronique, who seem linked in some indefinable, inexplicable way). Weronika sings with a choir, enshrouded in a romantic glow as though she’s uncontained by the fleshy plasticity of her corporeal form and ravenously searching, or distantly hoping, for another realm of life. Finding the “secret” of the film, the answer to its mysteries, flattens this sense of continuing to discover, to long, to pine for something withheld from us, a sense of discovery the film is always emotionally creating, rather than intellectually investigating.
Just as one is wont to devour the film in obvious symbolism and meaning, it is also easy to transform Kieslowski into an unclassifiable gargoyle of nothingness or nihilism, as though he has nothing to offer at all but his own irreconcilable pretensions. But from the beginning, the film’s narcotized atmosphere is never overcast in a melancholic storm of purposeless loss. Instead, it creates an incorporeal translucence that allows the film to slip out of our very arms only so that we may continue to find that which eludes us. Although it avoids an answer, the film is never hopelessly oblivious to one. Suggestions of meaning do arrive, but in perceptual rather than ideological dualities. Realizing that another human in the world may share a certain space – less physical than emotional – with you is not an end, but a means to new visions of the world. A picture of Weronika accidentally taken by Veronique allows her not to search for her double to find an answer to the heady question confronting her, but to drift outward so that she may discover the world around her in the first place.
Where we end up is a new realm of self-discovery located not in a single-minded quest to answer who Weronika is, but an opening up to the possibility of mystery in the world. The simultaneously grotesque and sublime elegance of a puppet show, the illusions of a musical performance – both ask us not to debate with but to sit back and experience the lively, momentary, uncontained nature of art itself. The seeming complications of the film crystallize around sensory visions rather than ideological, analytical philosophies, allowing the film to stray away from an easy gesture of distance and willful detachment teasing us or mocking us with its own alienated rhythms. Instead, we welcome a statement to the soluble, malleable caliber of life that always seems to exist at a slight remove from us – life as an out-of-body experience that we can only embody via an opening up of new perspectives and mindsets.
Fittingly, then, The Double Life of Veronique is also, necessarily, a meditation on chance and circumstance that finds its focus in a formal invocation of freeing, floating whims of dreamlike movement that resist stagnancy or ossification. Like the two heroines, the camera extends outward, spreading its wings to discover the world. Kieslowski’s glacial, even fragile film finds an alternately haunting and titillating, suggestive mood that shifts and slips away from us like an apparition or a half-experienced vision of alternate possibility, dancing between moods as an expression of the fluidity of experience. It exists in the fable-like, imaginative realm where Weronika (a Polish singer) can whimsically catch a whisper of a phantom version of herself, Veronique (who is also a singer), and the death of one can snap the other – and us – into a new vision of life itself.
So one could leave the film in an atemporal, cloudily intellectual, symbolic realm, but that, too often, is where cinema goes to die. Instead, I prefer to let the film breathe, take in light, photosynthesize, renew itself, and shift before our eyes, refracting its shimmering shards of light and prismatically dancing before our eyes in bursts of kinetic, transcendental beauty. Much like the two protagonists, whose interrelationship is left a figment rather than a puzzle to be solved, the film gallantly refuses to turn itself into a mystery of narrative or character but instead an unlocking mechanism that opens us up to the incomprehensibility of life’s mysteries and then proposes that a quantifiable solution is less valuable than a qualitative feeling. Hoping, feeling, that someone else in the world is connected to us is more valuable than knowing it for sure.
Which is to say, Kieslowski is happy to leave us wanting and lingering not as a tease or a bitter respite from knowledge, but as a value-added statement to the possibility of in-between states rather than finality. Incompleteness, especially the state of elusive mystique wielded when one isn’t sure what one has seen, is a special position for Kieslowski devoid of conclusivity. There’s a beauty in hovering for the director because it attunes us to the outside world as a spatial and temporal wealth of not only knowledge, which is passe, but experience, which is more wonderful because it is always fundamentally gaseous and never regimented. Kieslowski relishes experience – the rain-devoured glimpses of drowsy but lively Krakow, the parsels of fleeting light doled out parsimoniously by the sky, the hypnosis of time that moves but remains in standstill captured by Slawomir Idziak’s camera – as a realm of self-discovery that is, for Kieslowski, always an act of becoming rather than a state of being. He doesn’t want us, or either heroine, to know our selves fully, for that douses the enlivened, enlightened state of taking in the world to understand or redefine the self.
Thus, Kieslowski divines potential not only in Veronique’s nubile quest for sexual awakening and her exploration of the spectral after-image of herself she glimpses but can never be sure of, but in our quest to awaken ourselves to the pigmentation of the world. The oblivious happenstances of life transform into enigmas of color, space, and sound that twirl around us, shrouded in a ghostly pallor or a yellow that oscillates between a malarial gauntness and an ochre-golden glow of realization. The world becomes mystical, special ether of unquantifiable charisma, the dust-caked hollowness of Krakow sublimated to a higher realm of ethereal resplendence. Canted angles and fractured orbs attune us to the perils of perception and eventually explode in orgiastic displays of new experience – our mind floats freely but is always tied to the beauty of the earth. Ultimately, if The Double Life of Veronique is about anything, it’s not a previously unknown worldly order or duality waiting to be solved, but a shrouded realm of becoming and experiencing waiting to open itself up to us. The self we can imagine elsewhere in the world is subsumed into the self we can visualize right in front of us, if only we know how to look, or bother to.