It's a rare film that is so electrifying and emotionally philosophical an experience that it installs a vivid memory in viewers of where they were when they saw it, and what state their life was in at the time – not to mention a mysterious sense of how their lives might be seen and felt differently thereafter. It doesn't happen very much anymore, but Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique had just such an impact on most nearly everyone who saw it. Ask a filmgoer who was there in the theaters in 1991, and you'll hear a gasp of transcendental remembrance, as if Kieslowski's film was a metaphysical ordeal and something of a funeral song for the European art film we'd let dazzle us since the '60s of Antonioni, Bergman and Godard. It was, and is, all of these things. Certainly, filmmakers in recent years rarely take on the sort of poetic ambiguities and formal dreamwork Kieslowski did, and those that have (Alexander Sokurov, Abbas Kiarostami, Bela Tarr) have been sketchily distributed in the U.S.
What did Kieslowski do that was so epochal? It's hard to articulate, but it has everything to do with his worshipful attention to dewy star Irene Jacob, to the opalescent, world-through-a-teardrop cinematography of Slawomir Idziak, and to the fundamentally enigmatic tale co-written, as were all of Kieslowski's important films, by Krzysztof Piesiewicz.
In a way, the story is quantum, constructed from both waves and particles, and subject to the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: two women, one a choir soprano in Poland, the other a music teacher in France, both played by Jacob, coexist simultaneously but are unaware of each other. They cross paths for a glancing moment (on a bus tour in Krakow); Polish maiden Weronika glimpses her doppelganger, but the French Veronique does not. This apparently creates an upset in an unseen astral balance, because thereafter Weronika dies (in mid-recital) of heart failure. Across Europe, across the same ideological and cultural lines that separated the continent for most of the 20th century, the reverbs hit Veronique, who in wrestling with the mundanities of her life now feels as if a connection she'd felt to the universe has been severed, leaving her for the first time truly alone.
How do you film inner disconnectedness, or spiritual awakening? Don't ask, just watch. There's no possible way to beg for more concrete conclusions from this magnificent movie's scenario than Kieslowski wants to give you; you either enter into this languid world of sensual reverence, global ghostliness and never-ending questions, or you leave the room. Are the two women in fact the same, an otherworldly bifurcation discovered by chance, implying a secret government of spiritual tissue beneath the surface of life? Or is it coincidence, which itself becomes a metaphor for the story of a life, for time, for the role luck plays in the supposed significance of our lives? Speaking of metaphors, what about fate, self, identity, European history, feminist connectiveness, the alienating structures of modern society and, why not, the Meaning of Life?
Yes, yes, yes, and yes. But not, interestingly enough, Freudian psychology. This is one doppelganger whose tangible existence outside of her "host" is never questioned and who does not reflect any sort of id-ego split or indeed any sort of trauma at all. Kieslowski would've shrugged off such a psychoanalytic formulation as reductive: Why should the movie deal with the mental troubles of a single woman, when it can effortlessly suggest interrogations about the nature of existence and self-knowledge? Veronique is nothing if not all-encompassing, large-hearted, passionately viewing the world through the perspective of Jacob's generous gamine, as a kaleidoscopic romance between light, shadow, flesh, crystal, doom and rebirth.
For all of its Sturm und Drang (most of it emanating in shivery gouts from Zbigniew Preisner's apocalyptic score), Kieslowski's is a sweet, achingly optimistic film. Jacob, Kieslowski and the film won awards all over the map, most overwhelmingly at Cannes, where jaded festival goers stumbled out of the theater as if they'd been privy to a divine vision. In the end, Veronique is more of an experience than a dissectible text, which leaves it wide open to be lambasted as merely visceral or sensual. But in 15 years I haven't encountered a single skeptical evaluation, outside of a one criticism about Kieslowski undressing his gorgeous young actress too often. It does seem that the movie cannot be gainsaid any more than it can be broken down into symbols, like a Bach fugue or a Vermeer painting. Particular movies are sometimes defined as "pure cinema,” explosions of imagery that is its own means and end. Veronique is a formidable example of an art-knowledge you acquire by purely physical means, with your eyes and your ears.