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Blu-ray Review: The Double Life Of Veronique – The Criterion Collection

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Director Krzysztof Kieslowski delivered The Double Life Of Veronique – perhaps his most acclaimed film – in between two larger works: 1990’s ten-part Decalogue, and the Three Colors trilogy. The film won a Best Actress award for Irene Jacob, as well as film honors for Kieslowski from both the ecumenical and FIPRESCI juries, at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.

The Movie

Irene Jacob plays the dual roles of Weronika/Veronique, two women living in Poland and France, respectively, who not only look alike but are living similar lives. Although Veronique shares a fleeting glimpse of her doppelganger in the streets of Krakow, the two never actually meet, even though their lives seem strangely connected. Both are talented singers, but while Weronika suffers a heart attack and dies on the night of a premiere, Veronique feels a sudden, unknown sense of loss and decides to abandon her own singing career.

Although the film touches on several topics – such as the search for love balanced against the drive of artistic and professional pursuits – it mostly settles on the role of fate in our lives. The two women share both physical and psychic links, in a way not dissimilar from reports between identical twins. And in the same way that they feel unavoidably linked to each other, there is also the sense that they’re set on a predetermined course of life, where their choices and free will are in tension with these connections of fate that are out of their hands. In a more obvious example, Veronique’s love interest is a writer and marionette performer, and there are several scenes where we can see her realization of life pulling the strings and progressing her movements toward a pre-determined fate.

Another aspect of the film is its overtly dream-like quality. From a visual standpoint, there is an intentional yellow-green hue to the picture that lends it an otherwordly look not entirely grounded in reality. Also, every conversation in the movie involves one of the two female leads, forcing a first-person perspective from the beginning to end. The overall effect seems to emphasize a sort of subconscious self-analysis of life that could only be completely freed in the world of dreams. Both aspirations and fears are allowed to follow two divergent paths to see where they lead, and we’re able to connect these choices back to the same split persona.

But with all the symbolism at play, the movie seems to intentionally steer away from a concrete story line. The setup of the two women and their professions and pursuits is used less as the basic story and more as scaffolding, a structure set up to just let events play out. It’s as if you enter the current of a stream and ride for a while; not really starting at the beginning and also not reaching a definite conclusion. It’s an emotional study, and your ability to forgive a lack of structured continuity or resolution will perhaps determine your overall enjoyment of the film.

Video/Audio

The Double Life Of Veronique is a beautiful film, rich with purposeful attention to details and a ghostly sheen that renders those details in more symbolic abstraction than they might have otherwise contained. Slawomir Idziak’s camera takes advantage of every angle in order to symbolize the two heroine’s worlds, and Criterion’s treatment does them all ample justice. The intentionally constrained color palette focuses the eye on these subtle images and symbols, and the viewer is rewarded with a handsomely clean print and fine detail to match.

It’s a shame that the audio isn’t as powerful as its visual counterpart. Although the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is perfectly clean and well placed, given its stereo limitations, the actual music component of the film feels faintly mixed. Composer Zbigniew Preisner delivers a beautiful score, but especially in the main performance scenes it seems to be held back. It’s a small complaint in terms of running time, but given the importance that music plays in the film it feels like an unfortunate oversight.

Bonus Material

The Blu-ray for this release is literally packed with supplements, and they’re all of genuine interest. The commentary track is provided by Kieslowski scholar Annette Insdorf, who offers a mix of background on the film as well as speculation on some of its more opaque passages. It’s not quite as enlightening as I was hoping for, and much of the background info can be found elsewhere in the supplements.

“Kieslowski – Dialogue” (HD, 52:43) is a gem of a behind-the-scenes feature, showing the director at work during the making of Veronique, and features ample interviews about his methodology and themes echoed elsewhere in his work. Kieslowski remains very candid throughout, offering a rare peek behind the curtain of his process. On the flipside, “1966-1988: Kieslowski, Polish Filmmaker” (HD, 30:39) is the more scripted, narrator-heavy look at Kieslowski’s career leading up to Veronique.

There are four short films included as extras, three of which are by Kieslowski. “Factory” (HD, 18:10), “Hospital” (HD, 21:22), and “Railway Station” (HD, 13:16) are all black-and-white documentaries taken from early in his career. Each shows a variation on the theme of inefficiency and unrest within the Polish Communist regime, and are subtly subversive in what they reveal about each area of industry. Also included is the short film “The Musicians” (HD, 10:35) – by Kieslowski’s early teacher Kazimierz Karabasz – which was hugely influential on the young director.

The U.S. ending for the film (HD, 5:17) is included, and although it provides a more definitive resolution, it over-explains itself and just ends up patronizing all of us slow Americans. Rounding out the supplemental section of the disc are three interviews. Slawomir Idziak (HD, 24:18) was the director of photography on the film, as well as on other Kieslowski pictures, and offers remembrances of his time with the director, as well as specific thoughts on Veronique. Zbigniew Preisner (HD, 21:16) composed for many of Kieslowski’s films, and gives his thoughts on the craft of music composition for film as well as his output with Kieslowski. And actress Irene Jacob (HD, 16:43) recounts her working relationship with the director and the specifics of coming up with the dual lead roles in the film.

In addition, there is a booklet containing two essays. Jonathan Romney offers a brief analysis of the film with “Through The Looking Glass”, and “Pure Emotions: The Double Life Of Veronique” recounts the director’s thoughts on his own work, as an excerpt from the book Kiewslowski On Kiewslowski.

Conclusion

If you’re new to the films of Kieslowski, The Double Life Of Veronique is a logical place to start, if perhaps a less immediate one than some of his other films. If you’re looking for a beautiful film then you will find a good match here, but the lack of concrete narrative is sure to leave some wanting. But Kieslowski is more of a destination taste than he is a chance encounter, and fans of the director will be rewarded with this release. Criterion delivers an enjoyable package, offering a beautiful presentation and a thoughtfully robust bonus section.

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About David R Perry