'The Double Life of Veronique' Beautiful woman in two roles can't save preposterous movie

March 12, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"The Double Life of Veronique," opening today at the Charles for a week's stay, is a seductive, glorious and irresistible piece of movie-making, not bad considering it's pure claptrap.

It's built around one of those mystic cliches so beloved of the pulp imagination: the tradition of "doppelganger," of doubles, and the fascinating but meaningless suspicion that somewhere in the world there happens to be another boy or girl just like you!

But when the movies treat this theme, the doubled subject is always a beautiful woman. How come it's never a fat, out-of-breath appliance salesman or a dreary professor of Russian grammar with loose dentures and halitosis? No, it's always a beautiful woman, on the theory, I suppose, that there can never be too many of those around.

And Irene Jacob is -- how do the French express it? -- incroyable, as in, un-freaking-believable.

Anyway, on the same day in France and Poland, or so our story insists, two little girls are born, mystically entwined. Each is a virtual duplicate of the other. Not merely are they beautiful, but they have exquisite musical talent, unquenchably romantic spirits, and, alas, weak hearts.

No word of disparagement shall pass my lips in regard to Ms. Jacob. And not only have I noticed her beauty, but it appears that the director Krzysztof Kieslowski has, too. Her luminous presence and the doubts and hopes and needs and fears that play across her radiant face are at the center of every single scene. It's less a movie than a long and wondrous magazine spread.

The movie isn't quite sophisticated enough to run the two lives parallel and draw irony from the counterpoint. Rather, in a somewhat dogmatic fashion, it unspools one life and then it unspools the second life. The subtle implication is that, by some mechanism of the universe that applies only to beautiful woman, Veronique Two (the French one) learns from the mistakes of Veronika One (the Polish one.) And throughout the film, Kieslowski plays cute little games on the theme of doubleness: a string in one life will show up as a shoelace in the other.

This isn't really enough to make the movie work; what does work is that each story is, in itself, spirited and absorbing. In fact, if the double-or-nothing theme is pointless to you, it helps to think of the film as two novellas on women named Veronique.

Veronika of Poland is an amateur singer staying with her aunt in Warsaw. She meets a young soldier and falls in love. She auditions for a role in a concert and her natural talent overcomes her lack of technique and she gets the part. Almost immediately, she becomes afflicted with chest pains, but bravely pushes on. The concert is the highlight of her life -- and its end.

On that same day in Paris, Veronique of France awakens with a terrible sense of loss and warning. She decides to give up singing. It's as if in her death, Veronika has given Veronique the gift of life. What then follows is Veronique's affair with a puppeteer-novelist, played by Philippe Volter, one of those scrawny artistic types that women in movies always find irresistible.

Alexandre (Volter) romances her in mysterious ways, by sending her odd clues that tantalize her into at last coming in search of him. (Again, this only works in movies; in real life she'd call the cops and Mr. Alexandre would be sent to Devil's Island.) Finally, having lured her to him, he confesses his awful secret: He's writing a book. He was experimenting. He was trying to find out if it were possible to lure a woman to an out-of-the-way cafe on the basis of such a game.

Wow. I've seen some dumb moves in my time, but that's about the dumbest. Anyway, she bolts and he goes flying after, realizing that the novelist-research bit was a bad gambit. When he at last catches up to her -- in a hotel, helpfully -- he's just himself: neurotic, romantic, yearning, longing, earnest. That one always works!

The movie, as I say, is utterly preposterous and completely captivating.

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