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Moral anxiety races through the films of Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, known internationally for Dekalog and the Three Colors trilogy, and nowhere is this driving tension as deeply felt as in The Double Life of Véronique, starring Irène Jacob (Three Colors: Red) in the dual roles of young Véronique, ingenue singer on the one hand and baited schoolteacher on the other.
It is a film that deals obliquely in opposites and ought-to-be’s, almosts and would-haves. The staggering sense of finality at the denouement, the hair-raising and slow-moving encounter with the threatening borderland of an interior intactness that we the audience generally take for granted, keeps the viewer on their toes throughout. Call it the spirit of romance, or synchronicity unfailing, as the two lives on parallel planes move in tandem as though connected by a pulley, caught blindly on an invisible string.
In a collaboration with screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz, the two Krzysztofs’ creative vision coalesces with a hand from Slawomir Idziak’s darkly luminous cinematography, in a finely plotted tale that is sure to haunt for long tomorrows with its alternate futurities. Kieślowski’s conceit of two physically interchangeable women in Poland and France, whose lives are cosmically intertwined, gently suggests the consequences of choice and causation through how they commune and subsequently fall apart — one’s extinction engendering a sudden realization of the fragility of the other’s existence, a realization that reduces her to loud bathetic tears.
Our Parisian Véronique is a restless choirgirl busy singing in the rain, balancing a fling, and, most importantly to her, vying for a highly desired soprano solo. Her future is as putty, manipulated with an infuriating ease by the long arms of the more worldly characters — a concertmaster, a music teacher, and one well-dressed flasher — judging her performance and sending her and her dovelike vocals to the top; an experience, we discover, which she does not survive, as she is beset by a grievous health scare that foretells a premature collapse onstage in the middle of her extended act. Foreshadowing, check. A parallel universe apart, the other Véronique is a cheerful schoolteacher who unexpectedly falls in love with the unusual, somewhat deranged puppeteer Alexandre (Philippe Volter), an eccentric man with strange ideas about the game of seduction and romance. Their love story, though admittedly bizarre, as the calculating children’s entertainer is clearly disturbed, leads to a kind of redemption for the not-so-innocent.
As the specter of death filters through their lives, Kieślowski lays bare the two women’s illusions of who they could be, who they in fact are, who they appear to be — to themselves and to those unsuspecting victims around them, from the father, a kindly and permissive perfumer, to a double-crossed backstreet ex with an attitude problem. The Véroniques’ image-fictions of individuality, whether it be the dream a little dream of performance and stardom in spite of risk or the seeming folly of falling head over tails for real bad news, communicate a pathos for the character flaws that, in their minor attractions and confusions, are what in the end make us profoundly human. All the while, Kieślowski nudges you like a neighboring moviegoer, raising the question of whether it is possible to be enclosed in the space of self after all when we are all refracted visions of each other’s best and worst and ideal selves, kaleidoscopic and convex-mirrored and flipped on one’s head.
Our two Véroniques are made to be the other’s shadow, living their seemingly separate lives until their images come together in a series of linked encounters: while boarding a bus, the teacher on vacation accidentally photographs the singer, who is running back from her audition through a dispersing crowd — and totally oblivious to the civic unrest permeating the cityscape as she is captured by her body double on camera. The singer witnesses herself photographing herself, in an out-of-body experience that unsettles her conception of reality and what is possible. Meanwhile, the teacher goes on her merry way and winds up marching off into the proverbial sunset with her white steed, reviewing her photographs with her lover at the close of the film as he points her out in her own photos. That’s not me, she says, badly shaken, as if it isn’t enough that he has made two finely wrought, creepy identical dolls of her for his next staged puppet show.
This is the critical moment of crossover: the “exposure” to the glaring light of day of photographs, exposures, so to speak, in a play on medium specificity that is as long and drawn-out as it is unsubtle. It is the tipping point for the rest of the movie, until its final grand reveal and catharsis as one Véronique has a long-awaited narrative epiphany about her close shave with getting snuffed out by forces larger than the individual.