A woman cools herself on a glass window. Her eyes are closed and yet everything in that moment is understandable. It is a translation of sensation into emotion. Its grace is in its simplicity but also in its meaning being impossible to fully convey in words. The woman is Irène Jacob and she is performing in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Véronique.
At this point in the film, she is Weronika rather than Véronique, a paired performance with subtle bridges and differences that explores the inexpressible communication surrounding us on a daily basis. Highly awarded at the time, Jacob’s pair of musical characters is one of the great feats of European screen performance, a tactile and dreamy rendition of a fantastical double haunting.
Kieślowski’s ambiguous film opens in Kraków where we see the early career of a classical singer called Weronika (Jacob). She is joyful and boisterous, earning her place in an orchestra after a chance audition. She confides in her aunt (Halina Gryglaszewska) about her love life and how she believes she is not alone in the world, confirmed when she witnesses herself on a coach of tourists visiting from France. Weronika dies on stage while performing, the grief felt across Europe in Paris by her seeming double, Véronique (Jacob).
Véronique is also musical but her life has gone down a different path. A teacher in a school, she falls in love with a man (Philippe Volter) who performs a marionette show for the children. A game of clues is played across the city between the two until they eventually meet properly. Yet Véronique cannot shake the grief which follows her from the death of another self somewhere afar.
Jacob’s performance varies beautifully between these doppelgängers, marionettes of the director that take on a life all of their own. Weronika’s grin feels expressive of a possession, smiling with her teeth but not quite with her eyes. The proximity of her death feels strangely foretold and captured quietly in moments when alone. The worlds of the two characters are connected by music, belying the transcendent qualities of the emotions on display. Jacob expertly expresses these wordless feelings and moments, often through movement and small gestures. It gives the film, and its central double performance, the quality of a dream.
“Both variations of Véronique engage the world through touch, to the point where it is not inconceivable that the characters only fully understand things when engaging them physically.”
Véronique in particular wanders as if in a state of sleep, stumbling and running between the shadows of Parisian streets. Mystery surrounds her as the unnameable grief seeps through the cracks of Jacob’s performance, gradually becoming torrential as the emotions of the character’s life reach various climaxes. The longing expressed in Jacob’s eyes still weighs on my mind, allowing for similarly meandering daydreams about all of our half-forgotten moments of déjà vu; those little glimpses of lives before and after us echoing through the minutes and days.
Jacob’s performance is also a tactile one. Both variations of Véronique engage the world through touch, to the point where it is not inconceivable that the characters only fully understand things when engaging them physically, whether they are places or people. The way her hands move over objects feels strangely ritualistic. When she wanders the streets, I follow the curiosity of her eyes, matching it even as the performance pulls the viewer into considerations of everything from burned wrecks of cars to empty cafes in Saint-Lazare station.
An academic could label such an approach to performance as phenomenological but it would undermine the warmth and emotional affect that it results in. Kieślowski’s films are incredibly open to such cold intellectualisation but ultimately the performances and emotional qualities he uniquely draws from his actors are beyond textbook interpretation. “I always sense what I have to do,” suggests Véronique. Jacob realises this with a truly wondrous gift.
Kieślowski gave Jacob space to develop each character, insisting on her creating a set of gestures and traits for each woman. “I found it a bit strange making a list of gestures,” she said, “but it made me think a lot and found a concrete understanding about each of these characters.” These were from general aspects of personality to whole movements and quirks, rendering each moment on screen unique and utterly of itself.
The Double Life of Véronique is Jacob’s strongest work because of such detail. Her pain and pleasure is believable as the instant of its arrival is so precisely on camera rather than just arising as a considered facsimile. Sensations possess everything of a life for a time. “Daily life is just full of intuition and premonition,” Jacob said when discussing her inspiration for the characters, “and solitude can sometimes bring intense moments of fullness.”
The film is filled with her grace in such moments, as if we share for a time in the presence of something holy; the transcendent of the everyday world that we all understand but which is beyond the naive hope of our language to convey.
Published 15 May 2021
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