Students of literature will readily admit that the theme of the double has been given, to put it mildly, its fair share of stage time. I will spare you the dull modern interpretations of such a phenomenon because they invariably reflect their proponents' neuroses; what we can say is that the double has allowed writers to explore different realities for their characters without resorting to much-maligned 'dream' passages. A more analytically productive approach, and one that covers more ground than merely the last century, is to consider the advantages and disadvantages of bilocation. Being in two places at once may sound dandy to a child who wishes to play truant while simultaneously sitting at the back of a boring class, but with such a proposal comes dual responsibility (a topos taken to an extreme in this book reviewed earlier). Another well-worn aphorism is that life offers us lucky souls a plethora of opportunities, the majority of which we must naturally forsake, otherwise we would not do anything at all. The third possibility involves people who are and are not the same person – what we have called identical twins but which in the future could entail genetic replicas of the same being – often bestowed with the title "separated at birth." Yes, the subject sounds quite hokey. Nevertheless, there are moments in existence where we sense that our steps are not uniquely our own, where another path seems to parallel ours with fatidic residue. A curious take on this sensation forms the core of this much-acclaimed film.
We begin in newly non-Communist Poland with Weronika (Irène Jacob), a young singer whose astral voice will haunt the whole film. Her life is a plain but good one: choral practice, chats with her aunt, and in between, a blossoming love affair with a fellow called Antek. Young, unkempt, and unremarkable apart from his motor scooter, Antek is only attractive to women of certain inexperience. He looks at Weronika – a gifted and sensitive woman who is not hard on the eyes – like someone disappointed that she could have a life of her own. Weronika is beautiful and has slept with him gladly, and those are the only two facts about her that matter. Interspersed with vignettes showcasing her talent, Weronika is seen clutching her chest in agony and since she is only twenty-five or so, an explanation must be forthcoming. We get it from her aunt: "Everyone in our family died while in good health; my mother, your mother. It's about my will"; the subject, obviously one discussed regularly in their house, is taken no further. Weronika makes a few mysterious comments about "feeling like [she's] not alone in the world," wins a singing competition in music-obsessed Poland despite her relatively modest credentials, and on the evening of her marquee performance, in front of hundreds and under the watchful eye of the old maestro who plucked her from among many other candidates, she starts to feel dizzy. The solemnity that precedes her solo tells us that what we are hearing is the voice of an angel and also a prophecy. Then something very strange happens: the other singer who had been passed over for Weronika looks to her left. The look is voluptuous and evil and never explained. Is she actually looking at Weronika, who is standing to her left but off-screen, or to someone else, to what lurks in the sinister shadows? Soon thereafter Weronika collapses to the floor, and before she is pronounced dead we see the camera hover momentarily above the crowd. It does not take much imagination to think that her spirit has left her body; where it goes, however, may or may not comprise the latter two-thirds of the film.
I have omitted one important detail: before her performance, Weronika wanders down to one of the prominent squares in this old city. Here riot police abound against the protests of youth (the specter of Communism, as evidenced by the hauling away of a massive Lenin bust at the beginning of the film, has yet to be exorcised) and Weronika spots a tour bus of foreigners still inebriated by the fall of the Wall and eager to snap pictures of any type of manifestation of civil liberties. Yet on that bus she sees something she cannot quite believe: a young woman who looks exactly like she does. In many cultures the sight of your Doppelgänger means that death is near, and we are overcome with ill ease at what may transpire. That scene will resurface in part as the film draws to a close and the political undertone of such a juxtaposition is clear enough, but the artistic one is far superior. What Weronika sees is an alternative to her own existence, and if the rest of the film drags a bit, it is in part because of the swiftness of its first third. The dynamic arrangement of Weronika's life, her seemingly unlimited potential, her unexpected demise, all this contrasts the slow labyrinth in which the girl she saw on the bus, a Frenchwoman called Véronique (also Jacob) finds herself.
Véronique is Weronika's foil: while the latter is a virtuoso, the former teaches music to children. She too feels that something is amiss in her life, and when Weronika dies, she mourns against her will and reason. Her boyfriend is pretty and feminine, the exact opposite of Antek, but she will find someone else in one of the more unlikely nooks of contemporary existence: a puppet show. In a wonderful scene destined ultimately for children, we see an armless hand move across a magic box. This hand belongs to the puppeteer who will enthrall Véronique because he can make lifeless dolls move like human beings, dance just like ballerinas, and for a few brief moments we are manipulated by his movements into thinking that what we are watching is automotive. At length an old woman puppet appears and Véronique notices, in the reflection of a mirror on the side of the stage, the ecstasy of the manipulator as if she had seen the face of God himself. The puppet is shrouded in white and rises again from the earth to music that sounds eerily like the arias that Weronika had mastered, becomes a butterfly, spreads her wings and then the eyes of Véronique and the Creator (Philippe Volter) finally meet.
The true motives of the Creator, who goes by Alexandre Fabbri, will not be revealed here, but you may be reminded of a similar structure to another Kieślowski film starring Jacob; Preisner's score will also sound very familiar to Kieślowski connoisseurs. But a little old lady stopping to regather her bags who rebuffs Véronique's offer for help may be the finest touch of all. Old people want to rekindle memories not be reminded of their frailness. And Véronique's vision of the old woman puppet becoming a butterfly demonstrates her own mortality and the cycle of rebirth in which we think we feel that we have been – or still are – someone else. In Greek, we recall, butterfly and soul are both psyche, so should we really be that surprised at this double existence or are they but two of many Véroniques hovering about? We'll let our Creator and puppeteer answer that.