It has mostly been the case that this blog does not trade in the review and analysis of classic films, for any number of good and bad reasons. But a perfect storm of impulses struck me in the last couple of weeks, and thus I find myself launching a new feature that I will play with for a month or two, grow increasingly weary of and eventually abandon: Sunday Classic Movies!

Of course, the first problem with this idea is that I'm launching it on a Monday.

See, I was going to do this last week with a different film, but Thanksgiving and my parents' computer got all up my ass, and then I didn't do it this weekend because I was far too busy playing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which is pretty much the best video game in the best video game franchise of all time, which ought to make it the best video game ever, but I can't quite bring myself to say THAT.

Anyway: my first Sunday Classic Movie. No advocacy, just taking a film I saw for the first time recently, and trying to figure out what makes it work the way it does. This will, I hope, be the first of about eight that I'll write until, upset by the time it takes and the pronounced lack of comments, I go back to wishing that Liberality for All starts publishing again because those? were great fun to write about.

The first film made by Krzysztof Kieślowski outside of his native Poland, La double vie de Véronique [The Double Life of Veronique] has only ever been available in fits and starts in the US, until the release of a Criterion Collection DVD two weeks ago. A crying shame, and somewhat suprising given the director's canonisation by the cinephiliac community. But what matters is that it's here, and it's fantastic.

Custom dictates that when one writes about a film - any film, for any reason - one begins with a precis of its story, and this I shall not do. I shall instead begin with what I believe to be the most striking and significant part of the film, and that is the score composed by Zbigniew Preisner. The stunningly comprehensive booklet included in the Criterion set confirms what would have been obvious anyway, that the score and screenplay were more or less composed together. In a way, the film looks forward to Kieślowski's next film, Trois couleurs: Bleu, in which the entire plot, and much of the look of the film are driven forward by the MacGuffin of a Preisner-composed overture. But I shall take a step further: Véronique as a motion picture is wholly subordinate to its score. The story of the film, the look of the film, and the emotional beats of the film, are all there to flesh out what is already present in Preisner's "Concerto in E Minor," composed under his common Kieślowski-film pseudonym of Van den Budenmayer.

I will not embarass myself by trying to coherently describe the music, save to point out that it is highly Romantic and thanks to being in a minor key it's somewhat dark, emotionally. It is a chorale, and these lyrics are from Dante:
"O voi che siete in piccioletta barca,
desiderosi d'ascoltar, seguiti
dietro al mio legno che cantando varca,

"Non vi mettete in pelago, ché forse,
perdento me, rimarreste smarriti.

"L'acqua ch'io prendo già mai non si corse;
Minerva spira, e conducemi Appollo,
e nove Muse mi dimostran l'Orse."

(Paradiso II.1-3, 5-9)
The Princeton Dante Project informs us that these lines translate as:
"O you, eager to hear more,
who have followed in your little bark
my ship that singing makes its way,

"Do not set forth upon the deep,
for, losing sight of me, you would be lost.

"The seas I sail were never sailed before.
Minerva fills my sails, Apollo is my guide,
nine Muses point me toward the Bears."
It is worth pointing out that Kieślowski was unaware of the meaning of the words in Preisner's song, and Preisner himself didn't scour the entire Commedia looking for just the right passage; but it is surely not insignificant that he requested a translation before he began work on the composition. The lines are not necessarily important for understanding Véronique (although the line "losing sight of me, you would be lost" is deliciously suggestive in that respect), but they are important for understanding the "Concerto," which is important for understanding the film. I will not expound upon the music any further, being intellectually unable, but I hope that anyone reading this in preparation for the film, or after viewing it, will be able to use these lines to their benefit (they're not all that easy to come by).

So the film and its score, intertwined and inseparable; and what then is the film? In short, it is the story of a young Polish woman (how young we are not told exactly) named Weronika and a young French woman named Véronique, both played by the Swiss actress Irène Jacob and both apparently the same person. A paper could be written solely on the ways in which Kieślowski shows us how they women are identical, but the ones that seem to me the most significant are that both are beautiful singers, with an attachment to the same concerto; both are introduced near the end of a sex act that is found to be emotionally empty but fun and fulfilling nevertheless; both suffer from a heart condition, and this is where the film really gets going: after Weronika sees Véronique, her heart begins to worsen, and she ultimately drops dead of a heart attack in the middle of a performance. Véronique instinctively realises this and immediately retires from singing.

A quick trip through the internet tubes reveals that for a great many people, this puts the film squarely in the realm of fantasy and metaphor. Spend two minutes at the IMDb message boards, and you'll find the phrase "dream logic" used about 15 times. While I will certainly not tell those viewers that they are wrong - and can there be any "wrong" way to love a film? - it doesn't strike me that it's very necessary. Kieślowski, perhaps just being contrary, denied that any of his films contained any metaphor at all, and while I have some problems with that, it doesn't seem unreasonable to take the story of Véronique at face value: two women are remarkably, even impossibly similar, and they apparently have a spiritual connection. Given the stress the film places on coincidence and contrivance (it's largely a matter of luck that Weronika starts singing, that Weronika and Véronique ever lay eyes on each other, and so on and on), it seems entirely appropriate that the central plot conceit should be so unlikely. Much the same thing goes for the seeming metaphors: there is no reason not to assume that the film is drenched in rich symbolism, but it's very hard to argue that it improves as anything other than an intellectual exercise. There is a figure in Dekalog who is self-evidently based on Christ, but as the director once wrote, "I don't know who he is; just a guy who comes and watches us, our lives. He's not very pleased with us." This is not terribly satisfying on the level of plot, but I defy anyone who has seen that series to think upon that quote and not conclude that, somehow, it seems pretty much just about right.

This is the unique genius of Kieślowski and his co-writer, Krzysztof Piesiewicz: their ideas "feel right." It doesn't matter necessarily that anything is realistic or representational, it is that everything in their scripts contributes to the emotional truth of a moment. For Dekalog to work, there must be someone watching. It doesn't matter who. Anything in a Kieślowski that doesn't matter is absent. It doesn't matter whether Weronika and Véronique are in fact the same person, the same soul, or just an extraordinary coincidence. What matters is that their situation exists, and the emotional truths that are revealed about each woman.

What those emotional truths are, I will leave untouched. It is an act of sheer perversity to inform someone how they ought to experience a Kieślowski film. I can say what it is about: it is about Véronique's fear of death, and how she abandons her passion, singing, to save her life. It is thereafter about her relationship with a literal puppetmaster, who proves his love by making two puppets modeled after Véronique (the film's only misstep, if I can even use such a harsh word; although using needlessly literal imagery is not necessarily a sin Kieślowski could always avoid, and thus we have Trois couleurs: Rouge. I do not mean to say that this is always or ever bad, just that it is literal). My own view is that Véronique exchanges happiness for safety, and that from the moment she acknowledges the presence of Destiny (by qutting her singing, she admits that she is destined to die from it), she abandons her own free will. This is seen in the way that she is controlled by her lover/Kieślowski - both have created two women-figures that must do what they dictate - and then how she ultimately abandons her responsibilities and adult life entirely by returning to her father, her father's machines, and her father's trees (all of this in Weronika's father's drawing, as it turns out). The beautiful thing is that your reading might be altogether different, and that is fine; Véronique is nothing if not a Rosarch test.

Music - story - and there is a third strand that makes up Véronique, and just like the music-tail wags the story-dog, so too does Slawomir Idziak's cinematography seemingly take on its own life, as though the script is there merely to explicate the imagery. Idziak worked with Kieślowski in the seventies, and not again until episode five of Dekalog, later expanded into A Short Film About Killing, and he would thereafter shoot all of the director's remaining films Bleu. I mention this primarily because Véronique and Dekalog piec are conscious inversions of each other: the earlier film shot using a green filter to make the already grimy streets of Krakow look positively sick, and the later using a yellow filter to make the world warmer and more comforting. And, it must be said, hazier, and if any element of Véronique is truly dream-like, it would have to be its appearance. The film simply does not look like our world, and while this is good for the story - it makes it easier to believe the fantastic and melodramatic elements of the plot - it is good on its own terms. It supercedes the story, for while the script suggests how youth is a component of Weronika/Véronique's view on the world, the cinematography states it outright. It is, if such a thing can be said, an idealistic-looking film: nothing is grim or gloomy, no matter what is being depicted; everything is fresh and living. Indeed it is the most lively of any Kieślowski film, one of the most lively films of the past twenty years. The absurd and highly un-film-school thought that I had while watching the film is one I shall now share: the camera seems very happy that it is a camera.

I have no resolution; what resolution can there be when discussing a work of open-ended metaphysics and emotion? I will instead offer only one observation: Weronika dies after a crescendo on the word "l'Orse," while the film ends on the same crescendo. You who have seen the film will know if this unlocks everything, or nothing, or if it's just a grand coincidence.