Double Vision: Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Careful Classic

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Published January 31, 2011

 

IRÈNE JACOB IN THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VÉRONIQUE. FILM STILL COURTESY OF THE CRITERION COLLECTION

Krzysztof Kieslowski was concerned his films would be unknown outside Poland all his life. The Double Life of Véronique (1991) put an end to those worries. Rapturously received at the time, it paved the way for his films Red, White, and Blue, and stirred many a cinephile to go watch The Decalogue, the remarkable 10-part series inspired by the Ten Commandments that he’d previously made for Polish TV.

Like those searching works, Véronique burrows into the deeper layers of human relations. It tells two stories: one of a girl in Poland, one of a girl in France. They have the same name, are both musically talented, and are both played by Irène Jacob. And each has a vague, elusive sense that the other exists. “All my life,” says one, “I’ve felt like I was here and somewhere else at the same time.”

If there’s a moral here, it is for “careful” living, as Kieslowski explains in a documentary that accompanies the new Criterion Blu-Ray release. Every action has potential consequences for others, whether you know them or not. It’s a motif that Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (Babel, Biutiful) has taken to heart—as much as anyone making movies today, the Mexican director is the Polish master’s direct descendant. But while Iñárritu has Kieslowski’s emotional immediacy and intimate way with characters, he doesn’t bring as deft a touch to the theme of interconnectedness.With Véronique, perhaps more than his other films, Kieslowski (and the collaborators he rarely failed to credit) set out to film parts of life that can’t be filmed-the wisps of our awareness of a larger order, the invisible threads. It focuses, as Kieslowski (who died in 1996) once explained, “on a certain sensitivity, on a premonition, on this delicate area of life that’s difficult to address directly.”

Kieslowski, it must be said, navigated these regions with a certain hard-headedness: tellingly, his word of choice for things he didn’t like was “pretentious,” and he was known for his complete lack of sentimentality in the editing room. Jacob, in an interview that accompanies the new release, claims she barely recognized the final cut. The director’s original choice for the lead role was Andie McDowell; due to a contractual mishap, he ended up casting Jacob, who was much younger and almost completely unknown at the time. But watching Jacob (who won the best actress award at Cannes for her performance and would go on to star in Red) blossom on screen, it’s hard not to see that turn of events as a good thing-and wonder, as The Double Life of Véronique does, if there hadn’t been some string-pulling force at work all along.

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VÉRONIQUE IS OUT TOMORROW ON BLU-RAY; ORDER IT AT THE CRITERION COLLECTION’S WEBSITE.