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The Power of a Premise
When I started really studying film in college, I was still mostly paying attention to Western directors. If I was going to look closely at a film with a lot to read into, it was more likely to be someone American or British, like Alfred Hitchcock or David Lynch, who had directed it. I did watch some foreign films, but these were from directors known to Western audiences, like Akira Kurosawa. It wasn't until I went to a film club meeting and found my first real exposure to a director who wasn't as well known as Hitchcock or Kurosawa, but quickly became one of my all time favorite directors.
The director was Krzysztof Kieślowski, a director from Poland. Kieślowski began making short films in the 1960s before finally making feature length movies in the late '70s. Kieślowski's films were often stories about people living in Europe during the height of the Soviet Union, or dealing with the years following the collapse. Most stories were set in Poland and had some political subtext involved. More importantly, these were films about the people and the strange things that occurred in their lives. There would often be a religious element to what was happening, or something even stranger at play to cause what happened.
The first Kieślowski piece I saw was the first two episodes of The Decalogue, a ten part miniseries he made for television in 1989. Each episode told a story that was heavily inspired by one of the biblical Ten Commandments. No story directly acknowledges the commandment, but each story plays with interpreting the commandment. Although I have yet to see the rest of the series (you can blame Amazon for completely botching that birthday gift), I know that each story is similar in how it presents 1980s Warsaw as this epicenter of faith and the strangeness of the human condition.
After that, I got hooked on Kieślowski. I used my first paycheck to order a box set of his Three Colors Trilogy, the last films Kieślowski made before his death in 1996. I might review that series someday after a rewatch, but in that series, Kieślowski created a thematic trilogy, where each film is based on one of the three aspects of the French motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and a particular color of the French flag. Although none of the films have a story that continues into the next, there are some thematic similarities that do end up tying the entire trilogy together.
It was after Three Colors that I stumbled upon another of Kieślowski's films, the film he made before Three Colors. This film, The Double Life of Véronique, quickly became one of my all time favorite films, and probably one of the most important films I have ever seen. It became a film I wanted to be a part of me. I wanted to use it as inspiration for any creative work I did. It was a film so perfect, that I would do anything to capture just a hint of its essence. That may sound like hyperbole, but it really is a film so unlike anything I've ever seen.
To describe the plot of The Double Life of Véronique is to not really discuss the plot, but to describe a premise. In the film, there are two women, both played by the phenomenal Irène Jacob, an actress who I first was exposed to in Three Colors: Red and has become one of my favorite actresses ever. The women are completely identical in every way, although neither is aware of it. The Polish Weronika and the French Véronique were born on the same day, look alike, have similar heart conditions, and are both interested in music. At the same time, while neither of them has met the other person, they are both acutely aware that the other exists, even if they don't understand what it means.
That premise was enough to hook me in, and the film that forms from it is just as interesting. There isn't too much of a plot, but there is a ton of atmosphere and mood. The first part of the film follows Weronika as she accepts a role in a concert. We're given a look into her ordinary life, even though their seems to be something missing from it. It isn't until Weronika sees Véronique on a bus during a demonstration that it becomes clear there is something extraordinary going on.
After that, the second half follows Véronique. She's entranced by a puppet show that is performed at the school she teaches at, and she soon begins to find a connection forming between her and the man behind the show, a childrens book author. Véronique's story has her starting to realize the connection with the man, especially when she starts receiving strange mail that is calling her to a certain location.
Throughout the film, there are long scenes of Jacob playing her role with little to no reason for what is happening. However, this is all used to establish the kind of world we're in. For the characters she plays, Jacob imbues each woman with a sense of wonder and joy, one who looks at the world with such a unique point of view. This is aided by how the film is shot. Most scenes have filters over the camera, providing a warm mood lighting to each scene. The scenes can be red, yellow, and green, and each time, it feels a little more comforting. The viewer is lulled into a dreamlike state, even if there isn't much going on in the film itself.
I think what really works for The Double Life of Véronique again is the premise. It's so bizarre, but entrancing. Why are there two women like this? Why are they so similar? How could they exist in the world? You watch the film hoping to get a reason for why this is. Honestly, you don't need to know why. All that really matters is that people like Véronique and Weronika exist, and that something like this is happening in this world. It's what elevates the film from normal drama and makes it a prime example of magical realism.
The Double Life of Véronique is such a strange but magnificent film that it's one that really sticks with me. I remember feeling my eyes watering up at the end of the film the first time I watched it. There wasn't anything particularly sad with the scene or the ending. I was just in awe of what I watched. It reminds me why Kieślowski is one of my favorite directors ever and someone more people should know about. It's art, plain and simple, and it's worth checking out.
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