Behind the Curtain: The Double Life of Véronique

illustration by Tony Stella

The first time I saw Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Double Life of Véronique—in a dark Boston University classroom almost 10 years ago—I dozed off for a few minutes. When I awoke, I found myself confused but captivated by the story unfolding before me, confident that whatever I had missed in my brief slumber held the key to a film that seemed at once warm and full of life while also completely defying explanation. Mesmerized by the rest of Kieślowski’s work—it was a Polish cinema class, and after Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski, Kieślowski was the final auteur we were examining—I returned to Double Life, approaching it as a puzzle to be solved, only to find that while the film again enraptured me, its meaning still eluded me. It wasn’t until I stopped trying to apply sense or logic to the film that I found myself understanding what Kieślowski was doing. Double Life is a film that exists as a feeling; trying to explain the logic behind “what happens” is useless. The point is examining what happens to us, what this film does to us as we watch it, and how we find ourselves in our interpretation of it.

Double Life takes place first in Poland, Kieślowski’s homeland. The second half takes place in Paris, which served as Kieślowski’s adopted home while he made this film, along with his grand finale, the Three Colors trilogy. The first section of the film follows Weronika (Irène Jacob), a young singer whose life is full of the romances and sorrows, moments of tenderness, eroticism, and the inexplicable loneliness of the young. On a trip to Krakow to visit a relative, Weronika passes a bus of tourists departing from the city square; when she looks into the bus, she catches a glimpse of herself—or rather, her double, someone who looks identical to her, yet is not her. This lasts only a moment, but afterwards, we see a sort of lightness come into Weronika’s being—she is full of life now, emboldened, spurred on by an unnameable force. “I no longer feel alone,” she says, and we understand that while this encounter has been meaningless on a practical level—Weronika does no detective work to track down her doppelgänger or investigate further—it has done something significant to her spirit. This glimpse of the fantastic has changed her.

Not long after, Weronika dies during a choir performance, and the story shifts to Paris, where Véronique (also Irène Jacob), is suddenly struck by a feeling of loss. Véronique’s section of the film follows her as she plays a game of cat and mouse with a would-be suitor, a puppeteer and children’s author who gives a performance at the school where Véronique teaches. In one of the film’s most enchanting moments, Véronique watches his marionettes at work, but finds that she can see him operating behind the curtain, making the characters move. When, at the film’s end, Véronique stumbles onto a picture she took during her visit to Krakow that captures Weronika looking at her, she is again struck by overwhelming emotion, a sort of confused, passionate sadness that may also have a bit of relief in it as well. When the film ends—with Véronique reaching out to touch a tree in her father’s yard, and her father inside the house somehow sensing her presence—there has been no epiphany for Véronique, or for us. We know as much as she does—that she has a strange, transcendent connection to another person, and that the nature of this connection, the how and why, are completely unknowable.

Much of Kieślowski’s best work operates on a subtle, ethereal plane, but even those works, from his early films through the Three Colors trilogy, exist within the realm of the human. The stories involve chance, synchronicity, and even destiny or fate, but they are grounded within the world around us. Double Life steps away and separates itself by having its characters, and its audience, directly interact with the supernatural, only to close that window to the fantastic, so that they, and we, are left to grapple with what it means.

That we never learn the nature of the women’s duality is perhaps exactly the point. The revelation of the double—first to Weronika, then to us, and finally to Véronique—puts us in the realm of the uncanny, that strange place where the familiar is suddenly made unfamiliar. Weronika sees her doppelgänger and suddenly feels no longer alone; we watch Véronique’s tale all the while knowing that she is connected to the now-dead Weronika, which colors and informs our view of every move she makes. Finally, Véronique sees her photograph of Weronika and is overcome by an emotion that cannot be put into words. Along the way, Kieślowski guides us further into the mist of the uncanny. Several shots are framed upside down, as if showing a reflected, or even refracted world. The two girls each have a similar clear bouncing ball toy that they play with. Each has a love of music. We are given these small strands of connective tissue and left to do with them what we will. Even the look of the film, lit in gorgeous tones of deep yellow and green, seems to evoke a dream.

And yet, as we revel in the imagery, or try to remember if we’ve seen a familiar background character in both stories, we, along with Véronique/Weronika, are left with little to no guide as to what this revelation of the supernatural means. Whereas other filmmakers use the uncanny to bring forth a feeling of menace or suspicion—perhaps none better than Kieślowski’s compatriot, Roman Polanski, in his Apartment Trilogy (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant)—Kieślowski offers us only beauty, a sense of possibility and an ineffable feeling that we are aware of something special. Weronika/Véronique muse about feeling alone or suddenly connected to something without ever understanding exactly how that feeling works. By not explicitly stating what the movie means—either within the film itself or interviews after the fact—Kieślowski forces us to use what he’s left us to make our own meaning.

Weronika and Véronique have become aware of the existence of something outside of reality—or, potentially, greater than it. The connection is so mysterious that it is difficult to put into words, but we do best to look at it like Véronique catching a glimpse of the puppeteer, seeing, if only for a moment, behind the curtain to realize that there is something more going on than what’s taking place on the stage. Weronika and Véronique’s stage is reality—what, then, exists behind it?

If this is a film that functions as a feeling more than a story, it can only be understood by how it makes us feel upon viewing it. We ask ourselves what we have seen behind the curtain Kieślowski has pulled back for us. Perhaps nothing that we can explain. Maybe we have seen that we exist in many places at once. Maybe there is a puppeteer moving us through life, our every step at the behest of their desire. Maybe we have simply realized that there is something else going on, something we can barely register, much less put into words or analyze and describe and make sense of, and yet, when we catch that glimmer of light peeking between the two pieces of the cloth that have temporarily come apart, we know it is there. We know that there is more. As an audience, we can interpret that in the manner we please—I’ve watched the film enough times to chart how my reading of it has changed along with my own life.

When I was a believer it appeared as a religious parable; without faith it seemed a love poem to the unsolvable mysteries of the universe; in fits of depression a wail against our inability to understand life; in happier moments, a simple warm embrace of the joy at just being alive, inside this beautiful puzzle of existence. In that sense, Double Life is a movie that can never age or lose its purpose. It will mean something as long as it has viewers, because not only does it pull them into the film, it pulls them deeper into themselves. We watch, we react, we reflect. And somewhere behind the curtain, Kieślowski is eternally working, guiding us deeper into ourselves and whatever we find there.