Back Catalog Review: The Double Life of Véronique

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The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all the movies I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films. 

Maybe it shows my relative lack of experience with Krzysztof Kieslowski, but if you asked me to describe his style in one word, fun wouldn’t be the first to leap to mind. I guess I only have Blue as prior knowledge and that one is particularly, well, blue, but from what I know about his other films, I still wouldn’t leap to anything like joy or delight. So color me surprised when the first half hour or so of The Double Life of Véronique was particularly fun. It starts with the opening shot, an upside-down cityscape at dusk on Christmas Eve. We soon see a little girl being held upside-down by her mother as she casts a spell over her daughter, telling her that the city lights are really stars in the sky, and that the last colorful light in the sky is really mists below the town. It’s a thing kids do. If you tell them to look at something and then tell them what it is, they’ll believe it, even if they know that they always see a city out that window. It’s a thing movies do, too. They create a reality of their own and then show us what’s inside it. If the movie’s any good, we’ll believe it too.

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Shortly thereafter, we see Weronika, a young woman living in Poland who sings on the street with a choir. As she sings, a downpour begins. She continues to sing, delighting in carrying on as her company drops out. Yes! Here’s cinema, friends. As she finishes her note, the camera lingers on her close up, we see her smile and look up at the sky. Then a cut! She’s running through the street with her choir-mates and there’s a giant statue of some dictator or another rolling down the street in the back of a big truck. It gets more and more imposing but she laughs at it and gets out of its way. Then she meets a man we soon realize is her boyfriend. There’s another cut, this time to an alleyway where they make out and do other things. The camera sees the rain still pouring, but the lovers are covered and that’s good enough for them.

Later, she’s meeting with her aunt, who had a health scare. Her apartment is bathed in these crazy colors. The world feels both very lived in and almost alien. But Weronika smiles though. Her life is going well, then it isn’t. Then we cut to a woman who looks a lot like Weronika but is named Véronique. We’ve seen her before, a tourist in the city Weronika lives in. They cross each other’s paths for a moment then it ends. The rest of the movie is Véronique‘s. It’s not as fun, but that makes some sense. Véronique tries to understand her sudden loneliness, a feeling expressed in words but also felt in her movements and through the filming. It’s still colorful, lit beautifully, but now it’s not quite as vivacious as it once was. Weronika ran everywhere, full of energy; Véronique drives around. She walks down a narrow sunlit section of the road towards the camera, but we see the darkness closing in around her as she does so. She watches a spectacular marionette show at her job as a school music teacher, but she pays more attention to the man performing the motions than she does the miniatures themselves.

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Other things happen, there’s a vague sense that while something left Véronique in the moment we cut to her, but there’s also a sense that she’s looking for something. She thinks she finds it, but it’s a false hope. Maybe she’ll never be whole again. That’d be sad, but understandable. When Freud wrote about the uncanny, he wrote about how puppets sometimes freak us out because they look almost human and distinctly inhuman at the same time. Doppelgangers, then, are the epitome of the uncanny. We know that they cannot be us, but we can also see with our eyes that they look exactly like us. Their existence is a threat to our own. If they are living, are we sure we aren’t just a dream? Krzysztof Kieslowski’s movie isn’t about the horror of our doppelganger’s existence but rather the sadness of their absence. If they are dead, are we sure we’re still alive? Perhaps the only way to find out is to reach out and touch something solid.

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