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The Double Life of Véronique: The Criterion Collection

When the wonder goes out of the world, watch a Krzysztof Kieslowski film and reconnect to all that is ecstatic and ineffable about human existence. Actually, let's place some conditions on that: Watch any Krzysztof Kieslowski film beginning with 1984's No End, which marked the director's first collaboration with writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz and composer Zbigniew Preisner, whose evocative scores were largely worked out in advance of principal photography, a rarity in motion picture production. While Preisner's music added remarkable texture to all of Kieslowski's post-1984 work, his compositions were particularly integral to Blue, the initial chapter in the celebrated Three Colors trilogy, and The Double Life of Véronique (1991), which is easily the most elusive, erotic, and profoundly ethereal achievement of Kieslowski's career. It's also the toughest to crack; the narrative, featuring two identical-in-appearance protagonists, Weronika and Véronique (both brought luminously to life by the enchanting Irene Jacob), is a mess of near spirituality, bizarre contrivances, and incomplete metaphor. On a literal level, Véronique is utter nonsense, but on a spiritual level, it is resoundingly, if inexplicably, true, standing apart from The Decalogue and Three Colors due to its lack of clear purpose. Kieslowski never really pinned the film down, alleging that it was about sensibility, presentiments, and relationships that are difficult to name, that are irrational, which is probably why he struggled so mightily to find a title for the damned thing (the script was known blandly as Choir Girl), and ultimately expressed dissatisfaction with the one they ultimately chose. There is something inherently unsettled about The Double Life of Véronique, and, ironically, it's that quality that imbues it with the wonder.

The film opens with a playful series of inverted and obscured images, introducing the viewer to Weronika and Véronique as children. The narrative then leaps forward to find the Polish Weronika singing in a chorale that is interrupted by a sudden downpour from which everyone flees save Weronika, who grows ever more gleeful with each pelt of rain, gazing beatifically toward the heavens as she holds a tone until completely out of breath. This is a young woman who believes in living fully in the moment, and this is reinforced a scene later where she retreats to an alleyway with her lover and surrenders to a carnal embrace that concludes with the two awash in post-coital splendor in the man's bedroom. But Weronika's passionate nature is cruelly undercut by a heart problem that abruptly claims her life mid-solo during a concert, an incident audaciously followed by the camera floating away from the stage over the audience as if to suggest the exit of the young woman's soul. From here, the narrative is turned over to the French Véronique, whom Weronika had previously glimpsed boarding a tour bus during a Solidarity demonstration in a Krakow square. Véronique is also a music teacher and a singer as well, though she quits the latter profession almost immediately following Weronika's death, though she has never met her double and is not yet aware that she photographed her whilst touring Krakow. Still, Véronique is very receptive to her own intuition, which explains why she falls in love with a hand-puppeteer, Alexandre (Philippe Volter), after spying him in the reflection of a mirror during a performance for her students. In the film's strangest narrative gambit, Véronique is sent a recording of ambient street noises and other sounds that, when followed, lead her to Alexandre. And she is only open to investigating these mysteries because she desperately wants to understand the oddness that has pervaded her life since Weronika's passing.

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There is no simple accounting for what transpires in The Double Life of Véronique; at every turn, it frustrates attempts to arrive at an authoritative deconstruction of its events, symbols and, perhaps, post-Communist allegory. The early, exceptionally ostentatious shot of a displaced Stalin statue being hauled down a narrow street as choirgirls go scurrying by compels the viewer to place the picture in a political context. But, aside from the demonstration — which is a periphery event as far as Weronika is concerned — there isn't a subsequent political gesture to allow for such an interpretation. There's undoubtedly something being said about life in a more open society, but it's never clear that the protagonists taut emotional states, made explicit by repeated instances of thread being literally coiled, drawn, or violently snapped, are a reaction to the roiling upheaval of the era. There isn't a name for what these women are reacting to; it's something beyond comprehension, something both terrifying (the phone call Véronique receives of Weronika's final performance) and enthralling (the fall of dust over Weronika's visage jarred loose by a bounce of her rubber ball) that binds them in ways that Kieslowski dare not explain. That the filmmaker considered releasing, during the picture's initial release, multiple versions of the film to different theaters with varying endings (including one shot specifically for America) of Kieslowski's own volition indicates that there is no overarching idea or metaphor to extract from The Double Life of Véronique. It's a film pulsing with the excitement of uncertainty, getting off on the notion that something very close to magic occurs everyday in the margins of everyday life, whether one chooses to acknowledge it or not.

The Criterion Collection has done resplendent justice to The Double Life of Véronique with an immaculate anamorphic transfer (1.66:1) and fine Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Along with the feature, Disc One features the American ending (which, for most stateside viewers, is probably the only one they've ever seen), a dependably erudite commentary track from film scholar Annette Insdorf, three of Kieslowski's short documentaries — "Factory" (18 min.), "Hospital" (21 min.) and "Railway Station" (13 min.) — and a short film from the director's teacher, Kazimierz Karabasz, called "The Musicians" (10 min.). Disc Two kicks off with Kieslowski Dialogue, a very good 1991 documentary that finds the world's cheeriest pessimist reflecting on his career and his aesthetic (53 min.). Also worth watching is "1968 1988: Kieslowski, Polish Filmmaker," which offers a more-focused take on the director's background (30 min.), and a trio of new interviews with cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (24 min.), composer Preisner (21 min.), and, of course, Ms. Jacob (16 min.). Two-disc digipak with paperboard slipcover.
—Clarence Beaks

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