Polish master Krzysztof Kieślowski‘s 1991 film The Double Life of Veronique deals with everything it announces in its title, with nothing more and nothing less: existence as it is pleated to form the lives of two singular-plural beings, linked to each other by the invisible thread of a doubled fate. Starring Irène Jacob in an ethereal, captivating performance, the film weaves a dream-like narrative around Weronika and Veronique, two women identical in appearance, disposition, and desire, living their distinct lives with a barely fathomable presentiment about each other’s existence. When Weronika dies shortly after her unexpected encounter with her spitting image, Veronique will feel unworldly grief that will pull her into the search for another connection within which she can find a reflection of herself.

What sets apart The Double Life of Veronique from other films with similar premises is how Kieslowski builds his story’s fantastic world. The film immerses us in a landscape neither structured upon explanations or backstories nor different from the ordinary world in its content. It is built from memory fragments, fleeting observations, sudden intuitions, and lingering feelings – all those things, for Kieslowski, that “[one] cannot name” and “if you do, they would seem trivial and stupid.” As such, the world of the story is almost painfully intimate but never wholly graspable. It is both excessive and incomplete and is impossible to faithfully recount, represent, reconstruct or replicate – just like a dream. Kieslowski is laudable for creating a piece of cinema that reaches the domains of the inner life in such an unconceited way, showing it in its fragility and eternality at the same time.

There is a particular difficulty in articulating in linguistic terms that which precedes or defies linguistic logic. The film not only recreates but induces a dream-state for the viewer, as we are invited to follow not only the everyday actions of Weronika and Veronique but also the affective states of their being that bestow intensity to their movements and undertakings. Very early on in the movie, during an ordinary daily chat, Weronika tells her father that lately, she feels she’s not alone in the world. This curious statement is not used as an intrigue but as the verbal equivalent of a feeling that finds its true expression in the images of her reflection on glass windows. As she elaborates on this feeling of cosmic companionship, Weronika’s mood is one of muted curiosity, an inquiring quietude. When she unexpectedly runs into Veronique (without the latter’s awareness) and her presentiment gets ascertained, what she feels is not disbelief or affirmation, but bewilderment followed by a desire to make that impossible moment last as long as possible. After Weronika passes away, Veronique will be enduring a passage herself from a state of sexual enjoyment to that of overpowering sorrow, grieving someone without knowing who it is. These dream-feelings, not fleeting but inapprehensible, are co-created and accompanied by the dream-images of cinematographer Slawomir Idziak’s sublime use of color and light and Zbigniew Preisner’s haunting score, both of whom are frequent collaborators of the esteemed director. Thus, the film plays like an aria whose lyrics we don’t understand but which takes over our soul nonetheless.

There is an inherent danger, though, in describing the film through the notion of a dream. This is because mainstream conceptions of dream-logic rely on classical psychoanalytic frameworks that most often equate the former with figurative signification. On the contrary, Kieslowski explicitly rejects symbolic approaches, both in his filmmaking and its interpretation. What qualifies a film like The Double Life of Veronique as dream-like is not everyday things or occurrences standing as metaphors or distorted thematic representations, but the film’s ethereal quality and the aftertaste it leaves similar to that of dreams we all have and wake up from. The film is not a puzzle to be decoded, but an experience and experiment in the memory of possible, alternate, or yet unlived lives that we all partake in our dreams.

This distaste for the metaphoric ties in with two other related points: one, Kieslowski is not interested in plotting a beautiful mystery to be solved. He is not interested in “explanations” and would rather dwell on the nature of the enigmatic itself. Two, he doesn’t use the
dream-experiment to make an overarching argument about the cosmos or moral truths, but teases out through it the consequences of an intuited hypothesis in the most delicate manner, as gentle as the hands of his puppeteer.

For the story of interconnectedness in Veronique, Kieslowski works with an evocation of pre-linguistic moods (one of his cinema’s essential characteristics) to show the subterranean link between the two characters. The anticipation of this linkage defies logical articulation – both characters sense the existence of the other and their co-belonging, but it’s almost like trees sensing the forest through the touching of their roots. It is an intuition that is glimpsed only indirectly (through refractions and reflections) and can become self-conscious only so briefly, even though it pervades a lifetime. Weronika and Veronique have a paradoxical knowledge of each other – an understanding that can only be accessed in a hypnotic mode – and Weronika’s face in their encounter hints at that she stands mesmerized in the middle of a square occupied with fleeing protestors and menacing police.

“I had a weird sensation,” says one of the characters at some point. “I must be dreaming,” says the other as the world doubles and turns upside down. Kieslowski is curious as to why we do the things that we do – and the final answer is, we can never really know, especially in those imagined, parallel destinies we call dreams where we are the marionettes. The only indicators we have are those “weird sensations,” those feelings of defeat, disappointment, or melancholia, traces that point to us the invisible thread that connects our life to what is beyond it. A held note, a phone call, a cardiogram, a photograph – lifelines, or ghostly presences of a beating heart and breathing soul.

A double is never merely a copy of an “original.” Like a sheet folded in half, the double connotes two parts created by the insertion of a break, which separates them while showing their interconnection. Something should stop us from saying that The Double Life of Veronique explores the question of identity – a question that is unfortunately emptied of its weight nonetheless – because what is at stake is not necessarily Weronika and Veronique’s sameness, but the forking that created two out of an unidentifiable one. Two tapestries are woven, or coiled, out of the same threat, with a minor but irreducible difference. This statement’s metaphysical value is heard, but it doesn’t contradict our previous assertion regarding Kieslowski’s embeddedness in the worldly. Ultimately, the guiding question in The Double Life of Veronique is fate, but the transcendent aspect of it is never severed from or placed above the mundane, where the latter is sacrificed at the former’s altar. The ordinary reveals its transcendence when caught in a reflection or a distortion when it is trapped momentarily like the scenery in a droplet of rain. The pleats of the world unfold, displaying its creases that otherwise remain unseen.

These are moments when that which cannot be shown shows itself, not through metaphor or symbol, but as the very nature of things. Kieslowski succeeds in the very rare attempt to deal with the metaphysical without the metaphoric.

Shaping the story almost solely over and through Irene Jacob’s absolutely vulnerable and incomprehensibly angelic face (and Kieslowski has always been the director of the face and the close-up), Kieslowski creates a new fantasy of Through the Looking Glass, about forces beyond one’s choices. The film calls us to recognize the fragility of our co-existence as singular-plural beings – always containing multitudes – and of the illusions of individuality, independence, and unconditional free will. The film erases the distinction between the realistic and the fantastical, walking the fine threshold between the ordinary and the extraordinary with dove steps. For Kieslowski, the universe is affective before it is logical, and that is how we are daily touched and transformed by it.

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