A Look at the ‘Double Life’ of a Polish Director : Movies: Krzysztof Kieslowski’s award-winning work opens Friday in L.A. With its lighter, joyous images, it is something of a departure by the acclaimed filmmaker.
“This is a story about very delicate feelings,” says Krzysztof Kieslowski of “The Double Life of Veronique,” the first film by the critically acclaimed Polish director to be released in the U.S. “It revolves around the idea that we’re all alike, but very different at the same time--and I must say, making this film taught me a lot about communication without words between people.”
Selected for the prestigious opening night slot at this year’s New York Film Festival, and the winner of the 1991 best actress award at Cannes for Irene Jacob’s lead performance, “The Double Life” (opening Friday at the Goldwyn Pavilion) is the story of two identical women born on the same day--one in France, one in Poland--who never meet but are guided by an instinctual awareness of one another’s presence.
Described as “a spiritual joy ride” by Newsday critic Jack Mathews and as “a tour de force of flickering, incandescent images” by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, it’s filled with intimations of magic. As such, the film is something of a departure for Kieslowski, who proudly refers to himself as a pessimist and whose work usually leans toward the dark end of the emotional spectrum. Enhanced by an original score by Zbigniew Preisner (the score shot to the top of the charts in France where the film’s been a big hit), “The Double Life” is Kieslowski’s most visually beautiful film and it’s also his most thematically baffling one.
Says Jacob, the French actress who carries the film almost single-handedly: “This is a movie about things we can’t talk about but we’re all made of--instinct, the feeling of being carried by something, inexplicable feelings of regret. Sometimes you wake up and you’re sad and you don’t know why, other times we feel deeply connected to someone who seems to have very little to do with our lives. These are the things that give us hope--this feeling that we’re connected to something we don’t understand, that we have a reason to be in a particular place and time, that we’re giving something we can’t define to another person.”
During a conversation in the restaurant of a Beverly Hills hotel, the 25-year-old Jacob comes across as well-grounded in reality considering that the double role of Veronique was her first film lead and it garnered her a prize at Cannes. “This is really a film about directing,” she says, “so I thought the award was more for the film than for me.
“I was familiar with Kieslowski’s work, so when he asked me to test for ‘Veronique,’ I thought it was a fantastic chance,” says Jacob, who made her film debut in 1987 with a small part in Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir, Les Enfants.”
“We always communicated through a translator--I think he prefers that because it allows him to be very precise--and because we spoke through a translator, our relationship remained fairly formal. Though he’s clearly a man who cares deeply about people, he doesn’t have an extroverted personality. He’d never say, ‘That’s fantastic!’ He’d say, ‘That’s OK--if 10% of the movie is OK, I’ll be happy.’ That’s his sense of humor.”
Kieslowski’s black sense of humor isn’t surprising considering that he was born in Warsaw in 1941 amid the rubble of World War II, and grew up under Poland’s oppressive post-Stalin regime. “My earliest memories are of a small, dirty and shabby backyard and of German soldier drinking water from a well,” recalls Kieslowski, speaking by phone from Paris. “My mother was a civil servant and my father was an engineer who suffered from tuberculosis. There was no art in our house, and when I was growing up, very few films from America or Western Europe were shown in Poland.”
After an aborted career as a firefighter--”I went to school to be a fireman but never wanted to be one,” he says--he enrolled at the Lodz Film School and graduated with a degree at the age of 28 in 1969. He spent the next few years making documentaries that he describes as “about life and work. Unfortunately, those films speak of problems that still exist in Poland.”
In 1976, Kieslowski released his debut feature, “The Scar,” followed by “The Spiral” in 1978. It wasn’t until his 1979 film, “Camera Buff,” that his creative concerns began to coalesce into a coherent style. In it, a simple man, through a series of coincidences, has a taste of the bittersweet exhilaration that comes when one questions the meaning of human existence.
Kieslowski’s 1982 film, “Blind Chance,” tells the story of a medical student who must choose between three alternatives presented to him; the film then follows the student through the consequences of each decision. In exploring the idea that conscious choice is critically important in life, Kieslowski was moving into the territory that was to occupy him from 1984 through 1988 as he worked on “The Decalogue,” an ambitious cinematic work that’s been widely hailed as a masterpiece. An investigation into the meaning of the Ten Commandments as they apply to modern life, the 10-hour film marathon is structured in the form of 10 morality tales set against the drab landscape of urban Poland.
“Having immersed myself in the Ten Commandments for several years, I’ve concluded that man is a moral creature, but he’s constantly faced with situations where he has to choose and the margin of choice is never wide or clear,” Kieslowski says. “Man doesn’t choose between good and bad--he chooses between greater and lesser evil.”
Originally produced for Polish television, “The Decalogue” spawned two movies when Kieslowski expanded the episodes on killing and love into feature films for theatrical release. His “A Short Film About Love,” and “A Short Film About Killing” garnered numerous prizes in Europe and catapulted him to the front ranks of the directing field there, where he’s mentioned along with Andre Tarkovsky and Theo Angelopoulos as a poet of late 20th-Century film.
Kieslowski’s films remain largely unseen in the U.S. Though “The Decalogue” is occasionally seen at festivals (it played at this year’s AFI Fest), none of his films have had theatrical releases here and they aren’t available on video.
Kieslowski says no one has been able to make a deal with the person who owns North American distribution rights to “The Decalogue.” “There are presently negotiations between her and Orion Classics and Miramax, but I don’t know how far they’ve gotten.”
Kieslowski plans to continue his inquiry into issues of morality with his next work, tentatively titled “Three Colors.”
“The title refers to blue, white and red, which are the colors of the French flag,” he says. “This will be a trio of films, each of which deals with one of the three words of the French Revolution--liberty, egalite, fraternity--but they’re contemporary films with modern stories and characters set in three different countries (France, Poland and Switzerland).”
Presently maintaining dual residences in Paris and Warsaw, Kieslowski says France provides a more hospitable creative environment for him than Poland; despite recent political changes there, the outlook for filmmakers isn’t particularly good. “We won’t see many films coming out of Poland for a long time,” he says, “because there’s no money for them. And, although censorship technically no longer exists in Poland, it continues to exist there and everywhere, within all of us. Our inner censorship is our fear of others.
“The need for the courage to connect with and reveal our inner lives, and the need to make conscious choices and act on it surface as themes in many of my films, and those things are certainly central to ‘The Double Life of Veronique,’ ” he says. “This is also a film about destiny. We are all making our destiny, and each of us has a little bit of liberty.”
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