Kieslowski, Eroticism and Véronique

Irène Jacob stars in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “The Double Life of Véronique.” Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Irène Jacob stars in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “The Double Life of Véronique.” Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

I don’t think there’s ever been a film quite like Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1991 masterpiece, “The Double Life of Véronique.” Those who complain it lacks substance or coherence somehow managed to resist the film’s entrancing spell and I pity them. Though I’ve seen the film a handful of times, I’ll freely admit to being baffled by the intended meaning of it all. Large chunks of the film will evaporate from my brain to the point where I feel as if I’m experiencing them for the first time upon subsequent viewings. What lingers with astonishing intensity are the pure, visceral feelings evoked by the imagery Kieslowski creates with his veteran cinematographer Slawomir Idziak and his 24-year-old leading lady, Irène Jacob, a screen beauty for the ages. You may not remember what you had dreamed the night before, but you remember what you felt.

Eroticism is often directly linked with nudity, and though the cinema has no shortage of indelible nude scenes, it’s often what’s left to the imagination that proves to be the most erotic. The mind must be seduced before the body, a principle most Hollywood hacks tend to forget. What makes “Véronique” the most erotic film I’ve ever seen is the way in which Kieslowski has us share in his heroines’ heightened senses from the very first frame. They bask in the warm glow of sunlight, the cool trickle of raindrops, the cloud of glittering particles—dislodged by a bouncing ball—that envelop them like faerie dust. Weronika and Véronique, both played by Jacob, are open to the strange and indescribable sensations life has to offer, though not necessarily in a sexual context. When a flasher bares himself to Weronika, she glances at him indifferently, utterly unfazed by his pathetic exhibitionism. 

What turns them on are the sort of idiosyncratic wonders that would easily slip past the jaded majority. Watching the film, I’m reminded of Meg Ryan’s haunting monologue in “Joe Versus the Volcano,” in which she recalls her father’s claim that “almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. … Only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.” Jacob’s protagonists are hyperaware of their own connection to elements in their environment, even those that reside in its very furthest corners. When the two Jacobs, complete strangers, discover one another (at different times), it confirms a deep-seated suspicion they harbored that they weren’t alone in the world. In a lesser film, this might spawn some sort of horror scenario or, even worse, a hideous “Parent Trap” retread. Kieslowski, of course, is more interested in the metaphysical implications of such an inexplicable phenomenon and how it would impact one’s perception of the world.

Though Véronique has no knowledge of her twin Weronika, aside from a murky photograph, she’s able to sense when the woman has perished, leaving her feeling horribly lonely and shattered. Late in the film, she collapses on the ground in a flood of tears. Her boyfriend, a mysterious artist specializing in marionettes, begins making love to her, as if attempting to overwhelm her crippling despair with sudden carnal ecstasy. Idziak’s lens never wavers from its focus on Véronique’s face as it undergoes an extraordinary transformation. No music intrudes upon the silence. The only sound to be heard comes from Véronique, as her aching sobs turn gradually into primal moans. Kieslowski was known for his meticulous direction of lovemaking, and Jacob’s transcendent performance vividly portrays every single stage of her sexual journey, from the first gasp of pleasure to the piercing cry of a fully experienced orgasm. It is frankly impossible to watch this scene and not feel what she is feeling.  

Whereas sex serves as a rather perfunctory exercise in countless other pictures, here it holds an almost spiritual power, enabling Véronique to break through her pangs of isolation and regain her intimate bond with a world that had threatened to slip from her grasp. It’s filmmakers like Kieslowski who make you realize just how many of his peers are asleep at the wheel, hopelessly blind to the amazements that surround them.

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