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‘The Double Life of Veronique’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 13, 1991

Krzysztof Kieslowski's "The Double Life of Veronique" has a fragile, opiated atmosphere that hovers somewhere between eroticism and melancholy. It's a hushed, moody puzzle of a film with the haunted, unresolved air of a ghost story by Henry James, or one of Borges' poetic labyrinths. You feel as if you're only half-seeing it, as you might see the image of solar eclipse in smoked glass, or as if your sense of time had been disrupted and the whole thing had flashed before your eyes in the instant between heartbeats.

Only the sensual presence of the movie's heroine, played by the smashingly expressive young French actress Irene Jacob, gives us a foothold on this slippery ice. When we first see her, she is a Polish music student named Veronika, and immediately we're struck by the expression of passionate rapture in her eyes. Singing with her high school choir, she has the quality of ecstatic transport that one sees in the painted images of saints. She seems otherworldly, an earthbound angel, with her gaze fixed on some far-off heavenly light.

Veronika's spirit of distracted, inner absorption has a distinct but ineffable source. Waking from a dream, she tells her father she feels as if she is not alone. "Of course, you're not alone," he says in response, causing her to look down at the floor. "I don't know," she says.

Then one day while visiting her aunt in Krakow, she crosses a town square crowded with student protesters and, looking for a way out of the mob, sees a young woman among a group of foreigners boarding a tour bus -- a young woman with dark hair and greenish brown eyes just like hers, wearing a dark wool suit and a red scarf just like hers. The other young woman is too busy taking photographs for her eyes to met Veronika's, but without knowing it, just as the bus is pulling away, she snaps a picture of her twin, standing frozen in place amid the turmoil.

This snapshot turns out to be the only tangible record of their overlapping lives. Shortly afterward, Veronika wins a music competition and is scheduled to make her debut as a singer performing with the local symphony. Before her appearance, though, she has begun to suffer from crippling chest pains. Once, while she's doubled over from an attack in the street, a well-dressed old man exposes himself to her. Later, while she sings onstage at her debut, the pain returns, increasing, it seems, with every note, until she collapses from the exertion. Rushing over, the conductor grabs her wrist to take her pulse. "She's dead," he says.

Kieslowski, who's best known in America for his work on "The Decalogue," constructs his film out of the most fleeting emotional details. The world he creates here seems only slightly more substantial than an apparition; it's so delicate that it appears to have been constructed out of the feathery flesh of butterfly wings. And his hold on our attention is sustained almost subliminally, as if he were casting a spell. It's a masterfully calibrated mood piece, a sort of psychological mystery story that casts the viewer as a detective searching for the solution to a crime that has never been committed.

After Veronika's death, we are transported to Paris and into the life of Veronique, who's also a musician (and also played by Irene Jacob), but who awakes one morning and abruptly informs her music teacher that she is giving up her career. Something has disappeared from her life, something she can't quite put her finger on, but still very real. At about this same time, she begins to receive anonymous late-night phone calls and a series of strange presents, among them a cassette tape containing a progression of aural clues that lead her back to her secret admirer. The man, as it turns out, is an author and marionette artist named Alexandre Fabbri (Philippe Volter), whom she'd seen perform at her school. Fabbri is more a poetic figure than a real character, but he provides a bridge between Veronique and her Polish twin. He even builds a puppet to look like her and writes a brief story about their interconnected lives.

The film is itself a kind of puppet show, with Kieslowski as marionette master. And in tying Jacob to his strings he's made a brilliant choice and a major discovery for the movies. This is an actress with an uncanny openness and vulnerability to the camera. She's beautiful, but in a completely unconventional way, and she has such changeable features that our interest is never exhausted. What's remarkable about her performance is how quiet it is; as an actress, she seems to work almost off the decibel scale. And yet she is remarkably alive on screen, remarkably present. She's a rare combination -- a sexy yet soulful actress.

Kieslowski never really brings his story to any resolution, and that's as it should be. "The Double Life of Veronique" is a mesmerizing poetic work composed in an eerie minor key. Its effect on the viewer is subtle but very real. The film takes us completely into its world, and in doing so, it leaves us with the impression that our own world, once we return to it, is far richer and portentous than we had imagined.

"The Double Life of Veronique" is unrated but contains some nudity.

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