What if your muse, whom you’ve never met, lived on the other side of Europe, then suddenly died?
In The The Double Life of Véronique, the Swiss actress Irène Jacob, director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s muse, plays two women, identical in age and physical appearance, yet unknown to each other. Weronika, Jaccob dubbed in Polish, a gifted singer who lives in Kraków, is open, naive, passionate, an artist willing to give her life, literally as we shall see, for her music. Véronique, her double, Jacob in her native French, lives in the city of Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne region of France. While she has the same dewy-eyed sensuality of Weronika, Véronique is subtle, guarded, rational, a difference in personality you can easily miss, if you’re dazzled by Irène Jacob’s heart-stopping beauty.
Early in The The Double Life of Véronique, while performing an aria written by Zbigniew Preisner, attributed in the film to the fictional Dutch composer Van den Budenmayer, Weronika becomes one with the music. More specifically, she dies in mid-performance. Since people in their mid-20s normally don’t get heart attacks, Weronika’s death feels more spiritual, metaphorical, than physical. As they shovel the dirt over Weronika’s body, the scene shifts hundreds of miles west, to Clermont-Ferrand, where Véronique has just finished having sex with her boyfriend. Fittingly, the French call an orgasm la petite mort, the little death. Unlike Weronika, who just experienced the big death, Véronique gets up off her back, and goes on with her life. Yet both, unknown to each other, have shared something.
Véronique, who does know that something about her soul is now profoundly different, goes to her music teacher’s apartment, and quits her singing lessons. The old man is genuinely outraged. It’s a crime to waste your talent, he exclaims. But Véronique, who also has a bad heart, knows that to continue singing is to risk the same fate as her Polish double, an early death. It is only after she quits her singing lessons that we begin to understand an odd, yet transcendently beautiful, scene we had witnessed earlier in the film. Weronika, who has just been accepted as a soloist by a renowned orchestra, is walking across Main Market Square in Kraków, where she is jostled by a crowd of people, a political demonstration, rushing in the opposite direction. After picking her sheet music up off the ground, she continues. Suddenly, she’s transfixed. Véronique, on a tour of Eastern Europe, is standing alongside a bus photographing the demonstration. Weronika is as transfixed by Véronique as we are by Weronika. At the time, Véronique is unaware of the presence of her double, only a few yards away, yet later, a few hundred miles away, she feels her death like a punch to the gut, viscerally, her soul shaken to its deepest core.
Weronika’s death, in other words, is also the death of Véronique’s artistic inspiration, her muse. From that point on, after she decides to limit herself to teaching, not creating music, Véronique is a different woman. While we never get to see Véronique before she loses her muse, we understand that something has changed. Véronique, like Kieslowski, is now adrift in the capitalist west, deprived of her artistic identity, ready to be objectified as she had, unknowingly, objectified Weronika. At the school where Véronique teaches music, there is a guest performance by a man named Alexandre Fabbri, a puppet master and children’s book author played by the late Philippe Volter. Fabbri’s show, which features the death and rebirth of a ballerina, so eerily resembles the death of Weronika, that Véronique imagines that she has fallen in love. She has not. She has instead fallen under the spell of another artist, who sees her as his muse, and who begins to play a game of cat and mouse with the young music teacher.
As Véronique, no longer an artist, but the object of an artist, pursues a series of clues left for her by Fabbri, we realize that, now that she has lost her own muse, she has become someone else’s muse. The Double Life of Véronique itself has been transformed from music into literature, from the sheer visual poetry of the film’s first 30 minutes to the mystery novel of its final hour. The naive, idealistic Poles have become the subtle, manipulative French. It’s an interesting contrast to another great joint Polish/French movie, Andrzej Wajda’s Danton, where Robespierre, played by the Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak, represents the totalitarian east, and Danton, played by the French actor Gerard Depardieu, the democratic west, but The Double Life of Véronique cannot be reduced to politics. Rather, it is a profound meditation on the idea of loss, of childhood, of innocence, of the artistic calling. The nature of the artist, Kieslowski seems to be saying, is to face the same stark choice William Wordsworth delineated in his poem Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
To give way totally to inspiration, to follow the path Weronika took in Kraków, is to surrender to a death wish, the desire to return to the oceanic state of the womb. To subjugate inspiration to rationality, however, to objectify another, to transform another human being into your muse, is to become Alexandre Fabbri, a puppet master. The goal of the romantic artist, of a William Wordsworth, a Krzysztof Kieślowski, or an Irène Jacob, is to do the impossible, to bridge the gap between inspiration, and disciplined work. That Kieślowski succeeds as well as he did elevates The Double Life of Véronique from a relic of the fall of communism, to a work of art for the ages.