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against interpretation:

comparing the double life of veronique and enemy

By Jack Dorfman

Throughout her essay on interpretation, Susan Sontag argues about the duty of art to make you feel rather than encourage analysis. She rejected methods of interpretation such as explicit metaphors and symbols. This demonstrates two distinct approaches to film: those who want to experience the movie on a purely emotional and reactionary level, and those who want to theorize, deconstruct, and examine the film. Although it could be argued that any film can be experienced under either of these perspectives, there are certain films that lean more heavily towards one end of the spectrum than others. I will examine the narrative and technical traits that Kieslowski employs in his film ​The Double Life of Veronique​ (1991) in order to create an experience rather than a puzzle. For comparison purposes, I will then connect this film to ​Enemy (2013 dir. Denis Villenueve), a similarly structured film that is, on the contrary, designed to be interpreted.

Kieslowski’s narratives are built to suit his distinct directorial style, which is one the clearest renditions of Sontag’s theory. His movies center on the unexplainable connections between people, people and art, and people and their environment. Kieslowski is fascinated with mystery, and has included this motif throughout his entire filmography. Almost all of his work centers on abstract, unexplainable connections between random people. Before ​The Double Life of Veronique,​ he made ​The Dekalog​, a 10-hour miniseries, with each episode focusing on different people in one apartment complex. Afterwards, he made the ​Three Colors​ trilogy, a meditation on the interconnectedness of random people and how they are brought together despite their differing circumstances. These films use an episodic structure to focus specifically on certain stories, thus only by viewing the entire series are you able to observe the interconnecting themes between all of them. This is where ​The Double Life of Veronique​ stands out among his filmography. It confines itself to a 98-minute runtime in order to convey its themes of unexplained emotional relationships between unrelated characters. The synopsis of this film would sound ridiculous out of context: a woman sees her doppleganger, dies, and then her doppleganger feels an unexplained sense of emptiness and depression. However, this somewhat contrived narrative idea is perfect for Kieslowski because he is largely unconcerned with the plot, but rather with the emotions behind it. Sontag would be proud of this, as Kieslowski almost wants you to forget the story and concentrate on the emotions evoked by the images and sounds onscreen. He is never concerned with ​why​ there is a double or ​why​ they seem to share a consciousness, but simply that they ​do.​ Solving the mystery would ruin the experience for him and the audience. Explaining why they are connected would be a way of interpreting the movie, and would destroy the sense of wonder that Kieslowski was aiming for. However, this lack of explanation for the plot device could be perceived as lazy if it were made by a less skilled director. Kieslowski successfully combats this notion by implementing a myriad of technical and cinematic devices in order to ensure that the audience understands his viewpoint and is able to simply experience the film rather than interpret it.

One of the most consistent and obvious traits of Kieslowski’s films is his extensive use of music and its incorporation with the narrative. Perhaps the only film he made that is more musically integrated than ​The Double Life of Veronique​ is ​Three Colors: Blue.​ Both films make use of one specific piece of music that is played numerous times throughout the film as a motif for connecting characters. In ​Three Colors: Blue​, after a famous composer dies, his wife moves to start a new life in order to escape the depression of her family’s death. While in Paris living a new life, she hears a homeless man playing her husband’s unfinished symphony (which no one else has heard) on a flute in the street. This unexplained coincidence demonstrates music’s power of connecting emotions to experiences. ​The Double Life of Veronique​ uses a similar motif: the piece that Weronika was singing when she died is the same piece that Veronique is teaching to her music class. This cements the idea of their innate connectedness, as Veronique is, in a way, finishing the piece of music after Weronika is unable to as a result of her death. Because this theme of “music as a connector” is so prevalent in Kieslowski’s filmography, it is necessary to ask, why music? Whereas most films are completed and then the composer comes in to write music for parts that need it, Kieslowski almost always took a radically different approach. He worked collaboratively with composer Zbiegnew Priesner, who would start writing musical concepts as Kieslowski was writing the movies. This way, music would become much more narratively integrated. Instead of the music only being designed to enhance the images, in Kieslowski’s films, the images enhance the music as well. Perhaps Kieslowski is so obsessed with music because it is the most abstract art form. Film, theater, painting, and literature all include, as Tom Gunning would call it, an icon of the real world to conjure concrete associations. Music, on the contrary, is almost completely abstract, evoking emotion instead of story. It is nearly impossible to interpret music, and doing so would surely abolish the joy one has in listening to it. Kieslowski’s musical integration, among other elements, make the whole film seem to play as a symphony, with feelings following one another. Just like music, interpreting a Kieslowski film would ruin it. Another stylistic trademark of Kieslowski is his abstraction of the image. He continuously finds ways to photograph the world in order to reduce it to texture, color, and emotion. In essence, he makes images that are and index of the world but strips them of their iconography. One of the most prominent examples of this in ​The Double Life of Veronique​ is when Veronique is looking out the window of a bus, but through a transparent bouncy ball she has. The ball distorts the passing background beyond recognition, and taken out of context, one might not be able to distinguish what it is. This image is not intended to have a discrete meaning, but rather evoke a reaction from the viewer. Kieslowski himself said, “For me, a bottle of milk is simply a bottle of milk, when it’s spilled, it means there is spilled milk, nothing more.” He rejected the notion of concrete symbols, aiming to create and experience, which is the ultimate manifestation of Sontag’s theories on film.

In order to highlight just how much Kieslowski creates and emotional odyssey rather than a puzzle meant to be interpreted, I’ll compare this to ​Enemy​. Both films follow a similar plotline: an average person encounters their doppleganger, which causes a fundamental change to their lifestyle. They are both self-reflexive, designed to call attention to the apparatus of the cinema, as in each film, they encounter their doppleganger through a photographic medium. In ​Enemy,​ the main character finds his double as a background actor in a local indie film. At the end of ​The Double Life of Veronique,​ Veronique sees the now-dead Weronika in a photograph. Both films also soak their images in a distinct yellow color palette, yet to very different effects. Whereas Kieslowski creates a warm, autumnal atmosphere with the yellows, greens, and oranges, Villenueve attempts to delve into the grotesque corners of the subconscious, and does so by bathing everything in an ugly yellow color grade. Villenueve is asking for each element to interpreted and analyzed for meaning. He accomplishes this through explicit symbols, such as the spiders that are present throughout the film at very specific instances. Villenueve himself has said that the spiders do in fact a have a concrete representation, but refuses to disclose their meaning, He even made the cast sign a contract that doesn’t allow them to talk about the symbols in the film. This is a radically different approach to film than Kieslowski, who would never support this encouragement of dissection of a film. However, whereas interpreting ​The Double Life of Veronique​ takes away from its effectiveness, I will argue that interpreting ​Enemy​ actually makes it a more effective film. It is designed as a puzzle to be put together, and is hard to get carried away with the emotions without attempting to understand it first. In fact, upon my first viewing, I was not emotionally affected in any way, however, after watching it many more times and disecting how the scenes and symbols relate, now when I watch it I have a much more emotional reaction. In a sense, interpretation has allowed me to experience the film the way Susan Sontag would have wanted.

These narratives show that there are many ways to experience a film, and as long as the director understands their audience and has a command of their craft, you should not feel confined to experiencing one through a certain perspective.

Works Cited

Gunning, Tom. “The Challenge of the Specific.” ​Film Criticism,​ vol. 40, no. 1, Jan. 2016. KiesÌ​lowski, Krzysztof, and Danusia Stok. ​KiesÌ​Lowski on KiesÌL​ owski​. Faber and Faber, 1995.

Sontag, Susan. “Against Intepretation.” ​Against Interpretation and Other Essays,​ by Susan Sontag, Penguin, 2009.