Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Double Life of Véronique (1991)

Spoilers... You gotta be kidding me. You can't spoil this picture.

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski
Screenplay: Krzysztof Kieślowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Starring: Irène Jacob
Score: Zbigniew Preisner
Cinematographer: Sławomir Idziak
Editor: Jacques Witta

Images from the 2006 Criterion Collection release*.

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Krzysztof Kieslowski once said that he’d be happy if he could get 30% of the film he wanted. Likewise, I’d be happy to articulate 30% of what I feel and think when watching The Double Life of Veronique. For me, this is his most personal, introspective work. Just as Jerzy Stuhr turns the camera on himself in Camera Buff, Kieslowski is turning the camera inward to question his own conscience in The Double Life of Veronique, and in the process, bringing forth innumerable other ideas and emotions. To deconstruct specific scenes in the film almost seems to reduce it, and the picture is never static in my mind, but fluid and changing. I don’t believe I’ll ever reach a point where this movie ceases to be significant, nor do I think I’ll ever plumb all the depths of what it can do.

Since I’ve built it up so much, what is The Double Life of Veronique about? Admittedly, I cringe at this question, because the thing is, whenever someone asks me about a movie, it’s invariably about “the story.” For me, the story as it relates to plot is painfully uninteresting most of the time. What interests me are characters, atmosphere, emotions, feelings and ideas. The Double Life of Veronique is all of these things, blossoming into a phenomenon that the filmmaker speaks through, reaching audiences on a spiritual level rather than merely an intellectual one. It’s often called “metaphysical” and while that’s perfectly apt, people can be left content to leave it at that without digging deeper.

It’s a bit hackneyed, but The Double Life of Veronique is a film of feeling more than cold, clinical camera movements, and looking at our emotional responses to it is maybe the best way we can render meaning. In a sense, the film is like music: Something that is difficult to articulate meaning from, but is somehow uncommonly effective in swaying our emotions. The Krzysztof Kieslowski/Zbigniew Preisner collaboration is one of the best director/composer teams (along with David Cronenberg/Howard Shore or Alfred Hitchcock/Bernard Hermann), in part because Kieslowski involves Preisner from the very beginning of the screenplay. Preisner’s scores, for me, are some of the most unique, evocative pieces I’ve heard in films. Like Kieslowski, I’m not good at critically evaluating music, but I know what works in a film. The score for The Double Life of Veronique, for me, evokes the delicacy of not merely life, but of beauty, music, images, and love, as well. Balancing life is as much of a tight-wire balance as Veronique holding her notes in tune. Lives can just as easily waiver and collapse altogether.

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If The Double Life of Veronique evokes a feeling of vulnerability, it also brings a feeling of intimacy that can best be described as cinematic lovemaking. The scenes that exemplify this are the ones where we simply observe Veronique alone. Or is she alone? Aren’t we, the audience, always accompanying her? Isn’t it the medium of film that allows our minds to merge with her into a single disposition? She is often seen seemingly alone, but aware of something else. Perhaps this is her double, or perhaps it is a spirituality present between all human beings, including the audience.

Like The Red Shoes, The Double Life of Veronique can be seen as a rumination on the divisive forces of vocation and love life (and by extension, a simple, quiet life). The two women played by Irene Jacob: Weronika and Veronique, are perhaps two sides, or rather two possible outcomes, of the same person. Weronika forsakes her love life to aspire to the very limits of a singer’s potential. Her weakened heart, perhaps included because of Kieslowski's own heart condition, is representative of the choice between commitments: to a profession or to a love life. Veronique is the heads to Weronika’s tails, forgoing her potential as a great singer, choosing in the end not so much a love life, but rather yearning to regress to a simpler, childhood-like state.

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There is a similar progression throughout Kieslowski's oeuvre, in which the filmmaker transitions to increasingly intimate and personal work. Beginning as a documentary filmmaker, his pieces from Poland are closely tied to the nation’s communist history. Kieslowski then began a transition to fiction because he felt he was using the people he documented and had no right to film such personal events. Throughout his fictions, we see a filmmaker more and more concerned with the internal, eventually turning his back completely on the politics that populated his earlier works. This progression reached its apex with The Double Life of Veronique, his most intimate work. This is almost a declaration from Kieslowski, as Weronika moves in the opposite direction of a political rally, completely unconcerned because she has just seen her double. The films of Three Colors: Blue, White, and Red present a kind of reversal to this, moving backwards from solitary freedom to an affirmation of fraternal love.

Has there ever been a film so intricately and intimately connected to its filmmaker? The film begins with Veronique as a child and ends with her returning to her father’s house: to the safety of the paternal hearth. When Kieslowski announced his retirement, perhaps he, like Veronique, wished to return to his childhood, or rather, a life of simplicity away from the chaos of filmmaking. Yet isn’t he also, like Weronika, an artist who pushed himself so far, that in the end he simply burned out way ahead of his time? There is little doubt that these two women represent Kieslowski's own internal struggles, yet he is suffused into virtually all the main characters here, from the papas of Irene Jacob to Alexandre.

It’s interesting that I chose to write about The Double Life of Veronique right after The Red Shoes. The films deal with the dichotomous pull between life and vocation, and both have a performance in the middle that reflects much of what the films are concerned with. “The Red Shoes” ballet is a more grand departure from the reality of the film it’s in, but the puppet show’s purpose in The Double Life of Veronique is, for me at least, twofold. It is first a reflection of the larger reality of film, with Alexandre as the puppeteer that, much like the film director, controls the movements of the characters in his play. It is also reflective of the yearning for the simplicity and safety of childhood.

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What makes this such a personal film is that Kieslowski is inside so many characters. His life seems eerily connected to Veronique, but is he not also present as Alexandre? Alexandre’s influence on marionettes is extended to reality when he lures Veronique to him as if she’s merely a puppet being guided by his invisible wires. Kieslowski, too, is an unseen, yet ever present force guiding these character’s actions. Many of his films, with The Double Life of Veronique in particular, evoke the visual motif of glass. Kieslowski will distort the screen or create reflections as if inviting us to look at the world differently.

Glass, which is often a physical barrier (like in Playtime), isn't used that way here, I think. Kieslowski instead uses it as a connective, rather than divisive, force. It's as if he's emphasizing some invisible (or barely visible) connective thread. The love scene after Weronika's death is distorted by a crystal ball or fish eye lens, not only creating a surreal atmosphere, but perhaps reminding the viewer of the camera's presence. Or consider the shot below. Weronika approaches the window, as if regarding the camera itself. She then sees an old woman carrying groceries and offers to help. The commentary says Kieslowski included this because he was guilty, having made fun of the elderly in his youth. Perhaps, then, Kieslowski is asking for a second chance through the film medium, atoning for his mistakes and speaking through Irene Jacob with an offering of help rather than ridicule.

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Veronique is hurt by Alexandre, feeling he subverted her emotions in wooing her not out of love, but out of profession. The film, in this sense, plays like a filmmaker’s confession, with Kieslowski torn by the intimacy of his profession. Like Alexandre, Kieslowski is perhaps saying that his role as director involves asking the actors to expose and make themselves vulnerable for the sake of the film. Alexandre’s motives may originate from an almost scientific pursuit in creating his fiction, but there is a moment when he recognizes both the harm his experiment has caused, as well as the human being he’s come to love (yet he'll still use her double life for his work, ultimately pushing her away). Kieslowski is perhaps not so much in love with Irene Jacob, but rather comes to the realization that the director-actor relationship (or any filmmaking relationship) cannot simply be a business pursuit where everyone has a contract and adheres to the stipulations thereof. There must be a kinship and empathy amongst the crew if the film is to thrive. In a sense, they must become a family: a singular unit working for the sake of the film (seen in Day for Night).

If we consider the puppet show in the context of the opening and closing passages of the film, there is, perhaps, a yearning to regress to a child-like state. The first scene shows Veronique and Weronika as children, being asked by their mothers to look at something in a new, different way. Children are capable of seeing the world in such a strange, upside-down perspective, and throughout the film, Veronique seems to be within this mindset. Much of the film is concerned with approaching the world from a new angle, with its kaleidoscope-like shots, upside-down images, gold and green exposures, distortions in the image, and subjective camera angles. The world of this film is, like the molten Earth, changing and malleable. The distortions suggest a universe that is tearing at the seams, not in any apocalyptic way, but in a manner that implies alternate realities we are given glimpses of like peering through a keyhole.

If we take the “double life” of Veronique as a musing on possibilities, then the two stories come to represent a kind of crystal ball. In the first, Weronika makes a choice that determines her demise. Perhaps, then, these events do not occur consecutively, but rather parallel to one another: not reflecting reality so much as the possible outcomes within reality. Veronique then becomes the alternative, shying away from her calling as a singer in exchange for love, but subsequently shying away from love as well and returning to her cinematic papa (the trunk of the family tree, so to speak). In thinking about the film this way, it becomes not so much like The Red Shoes, but almost a backwards coming of age tale, musing on a reversal of maturity.

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The meaning of The Double Life of Veronique is fluid and changing. Nailing it down seems to make it all the more slippery, and there are so many approaches to such a strange, yet miraculous, piece of cinema. Kieslowski said this film is about things that cannot be named, or that doing so reduces it to something silly. In a sense, analyzing films is a bit silly, but thoughts should not be discouraged by Kieslowski's open-endedness. What results is a blossoming of interpretation. The work is almost unclassifiable. While so many films depend on plot as a krutch, The Double Life of Veronique could be argued as a more pure form of cinema, like a work of abstract filmmaking. The diverse number of essays on The Double Life of Veronique and the 20 some versions of the film Kieslowski prepared attest to a work that hearkens not to a concrete reality, but rather a fluid possibility.


* I don't normally do this, but The Criterion Collection has put out an incredible DVD of The Double Life of Véronique which is probably my favorite from them. It is filled with insights that expand, rather than limit (as these things tend to do for me) my own interpretations of the film.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Red Shoes (1948)

There are spoilers.

Director and Screenwriter: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, and Moira Shearer

Images from the 1999 Criterion Collection release.

3 The Red Shoes

There are two fundamental kinds of self-reflexive films. Those that reflect the medium explicitly, such as The Player or Sunset Blvd., and those that convey an interior, implicit reality, such as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (along with Rear Window and The Double Life of Veronique). There is, of course, plenty of overlap, and I simply cannot make a value judgement on which is more important. It could be said that the latter is simply a broader realization of the former, but I like to think of them as two separate perspectives: one of an interior relatability and another of external realities. Both complement one another like the body and the soul.

The musical is one of my favorite genres, and while The Red Shoes is no musical, it is, I believe, reflective of the melodrama that the genre often achieves. Both are not representations of reality so much as expressions of emotion. Expressionism is usually appended to German works conveying an emotional reality, and while classic film examples are Pandora’s Box or Metropolis, I believe expressionism is applicable to musicals and films of that ilk as well.

There is something hyper-real about the luscious Technicolor of The Red Shoes, and the film pulses as if blood flows through its veins. It is difficult to describe and impossible to convey with a screenshot, but even in relatively still scenes, there seems to be motion in the colors, as if they are beating to some silent rhythm. Every time I see the Technicolor in these sorts of films, an entirely closed system is opened up to me. These films almost don’t seem like a photographed external reality, but rather an interior reality, almost like a cartoon.

The division between reality and fantasy plays out over and over again in movies, since it is something inherent to film and audience, literature and reader, or listener and music. What these texts do is pull someone into an alternate reality and transmogrify their experience through vicariousness. How many times have you think you’ve experienced something, but then realize it was something you saw in a movie or read in a book? Yet, it is reductionist to simply point at fiction as merely shadows on a screen or words on a page with no sway towards actual experiences.

There is something about picking a film apart, like how one takes apart a machine to see how it works, that reduces the magic created by it. It’s as if the images on screen serve the same purpose as words in a story: as a guide that inspires imagination within the viewer. Perhaps, then, the magic lies not in the medium alone but the interplay between a viewer’s mind and the medium.

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If it sounds like I’ve digressed, it’s because I have, to an extent. The Red Shoes is less concerned with the audience and more with the creators of what the audience takes in. Martin Scorsese loves the film, and the fight scenes in Raging Bull are inspired by the subjective reality of “The Red Shoes” ballet, which emphasizes the writers, directors, producers, and dancers while distancing itself from the audience. Notice the emphasis of the screenshots sandwiching this paragraph on Julian, Vicky and Lermontov. The audience becomes a background, like the ambience of waves crashing against rocks. Yet, it is the same ability to crawl inside a medium that binds the audience to performer, and since I have never had a hand in creating art and am not professionally engaged to film/art, I must find another way to relate to what goes on within the movie screen to my own experience.

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What The Red Shoes does so brilliantly is juxtapose images that suggest a fusion between fantasy and reality. Perhaps this goes back to the look and feel of the film, in that it is simultaneously filmed reality (people before a camera) and a representative of an expression and mood (conveyed by the sumptuous colors and the dramatic arc). Nowhere do these images merge more beautifully than in “The Red Shoes” ballet. Like many musicals, the film gives us an extended sequence that is entirely self-contained and stands alone as a masterpiece unto itself, like a story within a story. Yet the best of these pieces, like “Broadway Melody” in Singin’ in the Rain, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” in Follow the Fleet, and “The Red Shoes” ballet are simultaneously standalones as well as serving to enhance the film they’re in, commenting on the thematic elements and expressing them in a highly cinematic mode of storytelling.

Another short digression, but generally speaking, the two least interesting aspects of films, for me, tend to be the story and dialogue. Invariably, when I’m asked about a movie, it’s about “the story,” as if plot alone is enough to recommend it. For me at least, plot is the clothesline, but it is certainly not the clothing. It helps stitch the fabric of a film together, merging the pieces without overpowering these elements, which include character, mood, atmosphere, and symbolism. The unimportance of the story in my mind, explains why I consider The Red Shoes to be as much about film as it is about dance, even if there is nary a mention of movies throughout the picture.

All of this, I think, is contained within “The Red Shoes” ballet, which sort of magnifies the entirety of the film within its 20 or so minutes. It is like watching the film in miniature, and in the process, it explores the medium of cinema itself and compares it with the stage. The ballet, perhaps endlessly analyzable, begins from a viewer’s perspective and then crosses over into increasingly subjective angles, finally departing completely from the stage, only to reappear in the theater as the number closes. This is what I’ve come to recognize as fantasy surrounded by reality and is representative of the film going experience: as a film begins, we begin to lose reality and by the end, we slip away from fantasy, reciprocating the initial transition. Of course, this is more broadly applicable to fiction in general, although it is more filmic in the sense that the stage cannot shift perspective as easily.

Where it gets (even more) interesting is in viewing Vicky Page as an allegory for the acting piece of the filmic jigsaw puzzle. There is another moment where, in a flash of light, her dancing partner transforms into Lermontov. In another flash, Lermontov changes into Julian Craster. And there is another moment when Julian steps up on stage towards Vicky, but then transforms into a dancer. The film is transposing the conductor into the characters themselves, as if he is conjuring the characters into being with his baton, like a wizard wielding a wand. In a way, the film is arguing for the auteur theory in collaborative art forms like film or the stage. The conductor, like the director, is almost a puppet master pulling the strings and controlling the movements of the player (the puppet, incidentally, is used in The Double Life of Veronique, one of my very, very favorite movies).

8 The Red Shoes

Personally, I’m not crazy about the auteur theory, although I tend to identify movies by director, since they are generally the biggest creative force. While it is important to acknowledge every person involved in the filmmaking process, I also believe the film itself is like a living entity, acting and reacting to what it sees. There are some things that simply cannot be accounted for, and perhaps luck, fate, or whatever you want to call it is responsible. It is an invisible force, like strings being pulled by a higher power, or perhaps no power at all other than life itself. We are all governed by something which we cannot fully explain, and it is this mystery that causes Vicky to jump from the building. Yes, we can say she jumped because she couldn't take it anymore, but why was she so torn and what caused this?

The division between Vicky’s love for dance and her love for Julian is balanced on a razor, and upholding both, as the film implies, is difficult. Her obsession with either one is like a love affair, and there is an interesting shot of her dresser where we see a picture frame. One half has a photograph of Julian, and the other is a cartoon of what appears to be Lermontov. When Julian storms in her dressing room, it is like the husband catching the adulterous wife. Interesting, too, that Lermontov’s picture is a drawing, perhaps reminding us that dancing is an alternate reality from “real life.”

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Boris Lermontov is a caricature more than a complete human, representative of having complete devotion to a craft and treating it like a religion. There is a shot that, for me, more or less defines him: He is next to a statue of a ballerina’s shoe, literally placing it on a pedestal. His relationship with Vicky is intended to be completely professional, and I sense no lust in his obessesion with her.

The red shoes are an allegory of this life force tugging at an individual to make divisive choices. It is often said the shoes are representative of obsession with perfecting a craft. Just as Vicky puts herself inside them, she is immersing herself within the dancing profession, and this is applicable to virtually anything in life. The ending of the movie can be seen as the tug between love and vocation, finally tearing the individual apart.

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I see the ending not so much as a tragedy, but as an allegory for transcendence. When Vicky dies, her spirit doesn’t float into the ether but rather becomes the red shoes. The ballet continues eerily without her, having the spotlight shine wherever she would be. This idea of having the performance transcend the body is, for me, a self-reflexive gesture that was foreshadowed in the earlier rendition of the ballet. The first time, the demonic shoemaker holds the red shoes and makes them dance, just like a puppet master (he can be seen as representative of Julian/Lermontov, who are in turn, representative of the filmmakers).

The film medium is incorporeal, yet the images on screen have a life of their own. Moira Shearer may have passed away, but she lives on in The Red Shoes, just like any other film actor's work. Having the final ballet with a physically incorporeal, yet imaginary and mentally tangible, dancer is indicative of the film medium itself. The demonic shoemaker is emblematic of the director, and there is a simultaneously intimate, yet violent, sequence where Vicky battles with the demon. It’s almost a love-hate relationship, in which there is a love between actor and director, and at the same time, hostility.

7 The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes is a magnificent, engrossing film. Like all movies, there needs to be some sympathy with what the film is trying to do, since it is melodramatic. It is a lyrical meditation on life and vocation, and attempting to balance on a tightwire above the two. Like The Double Life of Veronique, there is the sense of a metaphysical, transcendent state, in which artist and medium, audience and text, illusion and reality, merge into a single disposition. It is an act of love.