Doubled Life

The Double Life of Véronique (1991)

illustration by Dani Manning

The year Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Véronique premiered at Cannes, I was born one minute before my brother. “That’s not me,” Véronique says, looking at the photo she’d unknowingly taken of Weronika on a trip to Kraków, “That’s not my coat.” For a long time, I looked at that minute between my brother and I like Véronique looked at Weronika’s coat: as evidence that we were not the same. I should not have needed that minute—despite our identical designation, only one of us was a boy; though both of us were born with a kind of hole in our hearts, mine closed on its own and went unspoken—but I did need it.

To be a child is to be, at least partly, indistinguishable from other children. Add gender to that—imposed before you can talk, held against you until you’re past old enough to change it—and what are you left with? Your feeling. Your sense of yourself as bounded. The coat that is not yours, or the minute that tells you that you came first. To be first is to feel you’re going alone, though that is almost never true, and even when you think it is, you can’t be certain. Who’s to say that nobody else in history—running for their life or running for joy—has ever run faster than our record-holders? But that dream gives you a purpose, and a responsibility, even if a small child can only know so much of responsibility. My brother sometimes became an image of myself, across from me. It’s only when you’re distinct that you can understand the image across from you as a person, as not only somebody different, but as someone you love. 


Depending on who you ask, The Double Life of Véronique is about either the mysterious relationship between two early-to-mid-20s women with an investment in music, or about how one woman in her 20s makes sense of a spontaneous sense of loss. It depends on how you understand the logic of the double on film. 

In Poland, one of these women, Weronika (Irène Jacob), keeps moving: to Kraków, to her friend’s choir rehearsal, to the choir, to its solo, to her death. Some time later, in France—the film is ambiguous as to how much time has passed—Véronique (also Irène Jacob) is overcome with a grief she can’t quite explain and doesn’t want consoled. Again, depending on who you ask, Véronique either responds to the pseudo-anonymous advances of a mysterious puppeteer (Philippe Volter) because she loves him, or because she is searching for something to fill the void of her loss. 

Kieślowski’s film withholds its characters’ motivations; it’s mystical, or poetic, so it’s easy to overread. Searching for interpretation, it’s almost too comfortable to think that Weronika and Véronique are actually the same person, duplicated by a fold in reality; or, as in Slavoj Žižek’s essay for the Criterion Collection, by that person’s more-than-conscious understanding of time, which allows her to move back and forth as she pursues different paths in life.

But any reading of The Double Life of Véronique which offers an explanation as to the relationship between the two Jacobs risks blunting the delicate mystery at work, the power the film has in simply accepting that some things, certain feelings, are “true.” Not “true” in a concrete way, but in a way that means our lives must organize around them, must shift in response to their occurrence. The film shows us that these kinds of feelings can’t be explained, only recontextualized: Weronika smiles as she first sees Véronique, and then her smile fades; Véronique’s sense of loneliness is remade into a pursuit of a different, non-musical future; Véronique’s puppeteer suitor explains why he began to call her in the middle of the night, and then changes his explanation. Rather than show how similar Weronika and Véronique are, the film asserts their difference. 


In the womb I was twin B, the bottom line of an inverted T shape that blocked the birth canal. When I was born first, for no other reason than that the doctor chose me during the C-section, I became twin A. Accidents can become important to our lives, and I made sure this was.

In our childhood, my brother and I had different birthday parties. When I ask him why, he agrees with me that it was probably because I, as the brat obsessed with being separate, made it so. But when I ask my mom, she dispels the notion that it was an engineered situation; the only birthday we shared was our first because we would have been too young to remember. From our second birthday on, we had separate celebrations. This separation is a fine line: you can be distinct because you are different, but a superficial difference can also shore up similarity. When, as toddlers, my brother protested that he couldn’t wear a certain color, that it was mine instead, our mom stopped our coordination. In high school, we saw our alternate life: another pair of twins in our grade wore the same outfits, one in red and one in blue, every day.


In The Double Life of Véronique, the two Jacobs do not meet. The exception is one asymmetrical moment of the film, in which Weronika sees Véronique board a bus in Kraków. Véronique doesn’t see her, but unknowingly takes a picture with Weronika in it. An unknown amount of time later, Weronika sings a solo at a choir performance, and dies of a heart attack onstage. As if telling us there is no coming back from death, the film never returns to her world. Since seeing your double is a harbinger of death, and Weronika sees Véronique but isn’t seen in return, the movie is interpreted by some as offering a causal relationship between the two women, suggesting that Weronika’s death exposes the tragic outcome of their shared vocation. That Weronika died so Véronique might live.

But this, again, is a kind of imposition, because Weronika’s heart condition isn’t a surprise—to her or to us—nor is its relationship to her singing. In the opening scene, Weronika sings as it starts to rain: the choir behind her flees but she stays, holding the last note as long as she can. She stops only because she runs out of air, with a kind of gasp. As in Eugenie Brinkema’s reading of the tear or the drop of water in Psycho, the rain on Weronika’s face is an ambiguous form. It is the world, which cares nothing for her, and it is her heart, which cares too much. It’s her sensory exhilaration as she touches each thing that comes towards her throughout the film. When she leaves her audition for the spot in the choir and the solo which will be her last performance—an audition that also ends in a gasp, in the tension of levitation as Weronika curls and clutches at the leather tie of her portfolio—she puts her right hand over her heart and half-collapses onto a small wall on the side of the road. In either anger or exhilaration, she pushes the leaves off the wall as she runs to a bench, still seemingly in pain. To assume Veronika’s decision to continue singing is based on ignorance, in a film in which what the characters do tells us what they know, is to overread the film. She experiences her own response to her singing; it seems to be part of what she likes about it. 

What do we know of what Weronika knows? That singing produces a feeling or effect in her which she likes. That her aunt, in a previous scene, told her that “Everyone in our family died while in good health.” Weronika is reckless in a way, a sensualist, but she is not oblivious. That she saw Véronique is proof enough. How many of us, face-to-face with our double in a crowd, or even an unexpected twin, would find her? We would look not at a mirror but at our own face, and we might not recognize it. Weronika does.

What else do we know of Weronika? That she recently woke up, startled, with a feeling as if she wasn’t alone: “Not alone how?” her father (Władysław Kowalski) asks.

“That I’m not alone in the world.”

“You aren’t,” her father says.

“I don’t know,” she murmurs.

When Weronika sees this person or twin or apparition, perhaps it tells her she isn’t alone, or perhaps it tells her that she will die. Either way she might decide, based on this proof of the person who comes after her, to continue with the thing she loves. Later, Véronique will give up singing and find love with the puppeteer instead, for at least a brief moment; Weronika spends her time in the film ignoring her boyfriend’s deepening love for her. Film, like life, is full of people willing to die for their passion, willing to put their art above what other people think is conventional, or more important. Why shouldn’t Weronika be one of them, and Véronique not? Why should it be better to love a person instead?


When I left for college at 18, having shared my birthday for all those years, I promptly made a friend who also shared my birthday. When I moved back to Chicago at the end of college, and my brother moved to DC, I made another friend who shared my birthday—one of a set of fraternal twins. But here in Pittsburgh, no one shares my birthday, and I have begun to dread it. I want to be recognized; I want to be loved. I don’t want people to feel obligated to love me, but I feel terrible when they forget to tell me that they do. I want people to come together on my day—because really, all I want is for the people that I love to be in the same place so I can love them—but I worry that the requirement to appear means they will not have a good time. I have good reason to fear: since moving to Pittsburgh I have asked friends to go dancing to pop music at bars who did not so much like to dance to pop music at bars; I have twice picked movies that seemed a romp but instead were so disturbing we couldn’t shake them; I cried when my partner surprised me at midnight with a cake, and not altogether in a good way. It turns out that what I really want is for my twin to be in the same place with me, to celebrate. Here is what we will do, together. Here is the evidence I am not alone.

I would never have believed this as a child, even as a teen. To share a life—when that sharing was interpreted as a literal identicality; when I knew the primary trait we were perceived to share, our boyhood, we did not—was horrible to me. It was not because I did not love my brother; I did. In the era before cell phones, we grew up circling from room to room of the house, each in our imaginary games, together. We reported back about them afterwards. This was what I wanted: two people who had their own experiences, and recognized them as distinct by sharing them.

When people ask me what it’s like to be a twin, I often stonewall because what they really want to know is—are you psychic? And we are not, so much so that my brother was once rushed into emergency surgery and three days later someone finally thought to call me as I left the pool, blithely unaware in the sunshine at college. But what’s often denigrated about scam psychics is actually important: observation, intuition, intimacy. What appears as magic to the uninitiated is sometimes an extremely advanced technology. What it’s “like” to be a twin is to know another person very well, not because you’re inside their mind, but because you’re outside of it, because they’re next to you.

When I got that call in college, in the sunshine as my brother lay in the hospital, I realized that we really had no idea what was going on with each other. It took us a long time to learn to communicate with words, rather than with habit, proximity, and gossip. We didn’t know everything. But that’s precious, too.


As The Double Life of Véronique nears its end, Véronique finds what seems to be love with Alexandre, a puppeteer and children’s writer who had thought he was running an experiment for a “real novel” by mysteriously calling Véronique and sending anonymous gifts. But when she gets angry at this violation, this manipulation, he finds her again to tell her that he was wrong: he ran the experiment on her because he loved her. The game was real until it became a pretense. 

In their hotel room, Véronique asks him, “What else do you want to know about me?” and, because he says “Everything,” she dumps her bag out on the bed. Out comes a plastic ball with stars in it that Weronika had also looked through earlier, which turns the world upside down, and out comes the photo sheet from Véronique’s trip to Kraków. “That’s a beautiful photograph,” Alexandre tells her, “and you, in that huge coat.”

“That’s not me,” Véronique says.

“Sure it’s you,” Alexandre replies, handing over the photos.

The camera moves into Véronique’s eyeline as she stares at it, and—as her finger enters the frame—touches it.

“That’s not my coat.”

When Véronique next wakes in Alexandre’s apartment (or perhaps their newly shared apartment—she now wears an engagement ring), another nebulous amount of time has passed. She goes to find him, and the camera takes us again into her eyeline, moving through a space that seems as unfamiliar to her as it is to us. When she finds Alexandre in his workroom with two new puppets, they have an odd conversation. “Is that me?” Véronique asks.

“Of course it’s you,” Alexandre responds.

“Why two?” she asks.

“Because during performances, I handle them a lot,” he explains. “They damage easily.”

But the story Alexandre is working on is not about Véronique—it’s about Véronique and the woman who looks like Véronique in the photo. It’s a version of the story that Véronique had told her father, and then Alexandre, about feeling a presence in her life. It requires two dolls, not one, or it requires that one doll play two parts.

“When they were both two years old and already knew how to walk, one of them burned her hand on the stove,” Alexandre tells Véronique, in his story of her life. “A few days later, the other one reached out to touch the stove but pulled away just in time. And yet, she could not  have known that she was about to burn herself…”

Upon hearing this story, Véronique begins to cry. As she walks away from him into the bathroom, the camera stays on the mirror, in which we see her appear and then disappear as she moves. One possible way to understand this dissonant last note to their relationship is as Véronique’s realization that Weronika was to Véronique what this first child in Alexandre’s story is to the second—a kind of warning, a kind of scout. Someone who did things first, and in doing so, protected Véronique when she did them later. But another way to understand it is as Véronique’s own dawning understanding that the betrayal and the cruelty she first felt from Alexandre, when he told her he was running an experiment on her for his novel, has not gone away. That this precious feeling she had had all her life of someone coming before her, which helped her not to feel alone, has been turned instead into a doll in his hands. A symbol, like so many twins.

In the original cut, the film ends with Véronique pulling into her unnamed father’s house, having left Alexandre temporarily or for good, and putting her hand on a tree in the driveway. She waits there, touching it, feeling its distinct texture. Inside, her father (Claude Duneton) shapes a different tree into a chair. The scene asks a version of the riddle of the ship of Theseus: if you touch a tree and then that tree is turned into a chair, did you touch the chair? How do you recognize an object, or a person, changed? In the quiet after her father turns off the buzzsaw, he stops, bent over the wood, and then looks up. Like so much of the film, we don’t know the reason for the pause, or the look. The sequence of the film—Véronique’s hand on the tree, her father’s stopping of the saw—links the two scenes together, one after another, with the logic of the cut. But we have only this cut, and no sound or look or speech, to confirm it.

In his review of The Double Life of Véronique, Roger Ebert described these moments of the film as moments where, based on our own experiences, “we think we know” how and why certain events prompt particular emotions, which in turn prompt particular actions. But they are also reminders of how unlikely such continuity is between two people, how surprising and sometimes gratifying it can be when such a transformation is shared, as well as how troubling it can be when it is not. What “we think we know,” we do not know. In life, we could learn more by asking—but only if we felt brave or comfortable enough, and only if we realized that the person across from us was not, in fact, ourselves. In a movie, we must wait for someone else not only to ask on our behalf, but to ask at the right time. Why is Véronique sad? Why does her father pause, and then look up? When he looks up, what in you supplies his motivation? I might think I know, but I do not.  There is you, and there is me, and my brother, and Weronika, and her father, and Véronique, and her father, and none of them are the same.