Kieślowski’s Muse

This essay was originally published in the booklet accompanying the 2006 DVD release of The Double Life of Véronique.

At the opening ceremony of the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, actress Irène Jacob was asked to pay tribute to Krzysztof Kieślowski, who had died just two months earlier. Her eyes brimming with tears, she stood brave and vulnerable on the huge stage, extraordinarily beautiful in a white dress, and spoke of her mentor with a wistful eloquence. They had made just two feature films together. Had Kieślowski survived, they might have made a dozen by now. But the great partnerships in film history rarely last long. They burn with the ferocity and often blinding incandescence of a comet. Then each partner veers or drifts apart from the other—Lillian Gish from D. W. Griffith, Marlene Dietrich from Josef von Sternberg, Monica Vitti from Michelangelo Antonioni . . .

Jacob served as muse to Kieślowski even as she was his Galatea. In The Double Life of Véronique (1991), she acts with the flawless candor born of total confidence in her director: her look transcends the words she utters. She confides in the camera and, by extension, in us, her audience. Kieślowski’s cinema is one of intimacy. The Pole embraces the thoughts of his characters more than their actions. Weronika/Véronique may be enveloped by the sights and sounds of an everyday reality, but the allusive nature of her glance or gaze seems as beguiling as the hieratic gestures of the marionette operated by Philippe Volter’s Alexandre. Her response to the abundance of symbols strewn throughout the film reminds one of Bibi Andersson’s performance in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, at a time when she too worked in intimate harmony with her auteur.

In Jacob, Kieślowski found an actress who could communicate her thoughts through tiny bits of business—the pensive twisting of a shoelace, a private laugh as she reads a fairy tale, the extra blink of an eye as she tells her father of a dream or listens to a tape. During her first moments on-screen, Jacob sings a chorale by Zbigniew Preisner of such celestial magic that the very rain drenching the other singers descends like some inebriating force, and so, cleansed, she clings to the closing note with exultation.

The Double Life of Véronique pivots on a series of opposing impulses that Jacob must somehow convey with only a smattering of dialogue. For example, in the Polish sequences, she is on the one hand the picture of innocence, in her long skirt, white blouse, flat shoes, and traditional hairdo; on the other, she dwells without difficulty in a carnal state, making love or wandering through her apartment in her underwear. She must also confront the constant oscillation between the forces of life and death. Thus she clutches her heart in agony on a public bench, only to see an incongruous man calmly flash his penis at her as he strolls past. When she dies in Kraków, Kieślowski switches from a shot of her “spirit” staring up at mourners tossing earth onto the casket to the French Véronique having sex with her boyfriend. Jacob conveys the subtle distinction between her two personalities with nuanced looks and contrasting demeanors. The Kraków Weronika boasts a provincial self-confidence, whereas the French Véronique appears more sophisticated, more poised in a cosmopolitan sense. In both characters, however, a contained tenderness and susceptibility gives rise to inklings of mortality and of something beyond merely corporeal experience.

Jacob does not just identify with her twin roles in this film, she radiates all manner of intimations. Her eyes can grow dark with perplexity or widen with pristine apprehension. As she watches the marionette performance offering a metaphor for her double’s past in Poland (a dancer crippled and then reborn like a butterfly from its chrysalis), the actress is surrounded by children, and she herself, by some mysterious visual alchemy, also becomes a child entranced.

Juliette Binoche achieves a similar intensity in Kieślowski’s Blue (1993), but Binoche’s art remains more aloof, more calculating than Jacob’s. She observes her tragic predicament as if through a pane of glass, and her emotional response is tinged with a chill that’s accentuated by the predominant chromatic motif of blue.

Some of the great Kunstlerpaar have been contemporaries—for example, Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina, and Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya. The relationship between Jacob and Kieślowski, by contrast, drew its strength from the difference in age between them. Like Bergman with Liv Ullmann or Claude Chabrol with Isabelle Huppert, Kieślowski proved a father figure to an actress who had accomplished little, apart from her demure little role in Au revoir les enfants. In The Double Life of Véronique, Weronika’s father is first glimpsed from behind, in another room, evoking the image of Kieślowski himself. A similar shot exists in Red (1994), when Jacob steps softly into the home of Jean-Louis Trintignant as he sits, face averted, listening to the radio. In both instances, the man is her mentor, her spiritual papa.

The particular distinction of Jacob’s performances for Kieślowski is that she is on-screen virtually all the time. This subjective texture means that she must react to the words of others even more than speaking herself. As she tells the puppeteer, “I always sense what I should do.” Trusting her instincts, Véronique will remain cinema’s quintessential romantic figure, and the apotheosis of Irène Jacob’s talent as an actress.

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