Home > Reviews > THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIKA – Zbigniew Preisner

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIKA – Zbigniew Preisner

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Double Life of Veronika, or La Double Vie de Véronique, is a French-Polish drama film written and directed by the late great auteur Krzysztof Kieślowski. It tells the story of two nearly identical women, one living in Poland, the other in France, who do not know each other, but whose lives are nevertheless profoundly connected. Irène Jacob plays both women; Weronika, a Polish choir soprano, and her double, Véronique, a French music teacher, who embarks on an unusual romance with Alexandre (Philippe Volter), a puppeteer who may be able to help her with her existential issues. The Criterion Collection DVD of the film calls it “a ravishing, mysterious rumination on identity, love, and human intuition,” and there’s really nothing more I can add to that. It’s a visual tone poem, an enigmatic exploration of these two women’s lives, in which music plays an important part.

The score for The Double Life of Veronika is by the Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner, who previously scored the ambitious Dekalog series of films for Kieślowski in 1988 and 1989, as well as several films for director Agnieszka Holland such as Europa Europa. Preisner is an interesting composer; he’s a serious man who writes intelligent minimalist music for serious, intellectual films, but for three or four years in the early 1990s he was courted by Hollywood, winning the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Music three years in a row, for this film in 1991, Damage in 1992, and both Three Colours: Blue and The Secret Garden in 1993. This led to him scoring several pieces of mainstream fare that you would never think of him doing – the Meg Ryan vehicle When A Man Loves a Woman, for example – but The Double Life of Veronika was the first film which really introduced him to American audiences, and it’s not surprising to see why he was so acclaimed in its aftermath, because it’s really very good indeed.

The centerpiece of the score is a mock classical piece called “Concerto en Mi,” which was written by Preisner but is credited in the film to a fictitious 18th-century Dutch composer called ‘Van den Budenmayer,’ who was created by Preisner and Kieślowski for attributions in screenplays. In an interview I did with Preisner back in 1999 I asked him about this piece specifically; he said “Many people ask me about him. When Kieslowski shot the movie, he originally wanted to use some of Mahler’s music, but this proved too expensive to licence. He asked me to compose something original in Mahler’s style, and we were looking for the name of a composer – something different, something to be taken seriously as ‘proper’ music. Both Kieslowski and I liked Holland, and the name Van den Budenmayer looks as if it comes out of Holland, so we chose that. Afterwards, we got thousands of questions about Van den Budenmayer. We gave him my birth date but 20 years earlier and he even started appearing in music encyclopaedias! At one point, someone wanted to take me to court accusing me of stealing his music! Nowadays, if I write bad music, I accredit it to him!”

The concerto plays a pivotal part in the film’s narrative – it is the soprano part that Weronika is singing during a key scene – and motifs from the concerto drift in and out of the score proper, blurring the lines between diegetic and non-diegetic music. The music itself is really quite stunningly beautiful; “Concerto en Mi Mineur (SBI 152) Version de 1798” opens with a gorgeously lyrical melody for oboe that gradually emerges into a stunningly dark piece for soprano soloist Elzbieta Towarnicka.

The Latin lyrics have a religioso overtone, and are awash in brooding Catholicism; the piano and the swooning strings add depth and elegance; while the tolling bells and chanting choirs add a touch of impending doom. It all builds to a dramatic, solemn finale that is quite outstanding, a perfect accompaniment to the film’s themes of life, death, and religion. The three short “Instrumentation Contemporaine” tracks perform the main theme in a variety of arrangements for solo instruments, including a recorder, a harp, and a powerful duet between recorder and piano. Finally, the concerto is reprised again in “Concerto en Mi Mineur (SBI 152) Version de 1802,” which if anything is even more dramatically compelling, especially when it makes use of a cacophonous array of overlapping voices, emoting and projecting all the ominous portent of a Catholic mass, and eventually growing in scope and emotional splendor until it approaches something close to rapture.

Much of the rest of the score is based on fragments of the Van den Budenmayer concerto, but what’s interesting is how Preisner leans even more heavily into the duality at the center of the film’s narrative with music. The two women – Weronika and Véronique – have almost indistinguishable musical identities, but Preisner orchestrates the music slightly differently, depending on which character is the focus. “Weronika” is arranged for solo recorder and harp, whereas “Véronique” is arranged for a more breathy pan-flute. Later, “Solitude” focuses on harp, guitar, and intensely dramatic piano chords, while the two “Transcription” variations see Preisner extrapolating out from the core melodic ideas.

A couple of individual cues stand out for their uniqueness. “Tu Viendras” is a light, elegant choral piece accompanied by piano and harpsichord, with minimalist-inspired vocal harmonies that have more than a hint of Philip Glass about them. “L’Enfance” is an intimate, lilting piece for harp and acoustic guitar, which initially passes a lullaby-like melody around with great delicacy, and then brings in a recorder during the cue’s second half. “Les Marionettes,” which is the music that accompanies Alexandre’s artistic puppetry performances, is a deeply romantic piano solo, while the music for “Alexandre” himself feels more nervous and agitated, with tremolo guitar strums dancing around under an uncertain motif for recorder. The conclusive “Générique de Fin” offers a thoughtful, downbeat final statement of the main theme for recorder and harp, which ends the score on a contemplative note that fits the nature of Kieślowski’s unanswered questions.

The Double Life of Veronika is a short, but profound work that stands easily as one of the best scores of Zbigniew Preisner’s acclaimed career. The use of the Van den Budenmayer original classical piece as both in-context source music and original score is clever and well-judged, while the delicate and minimalist orchestrations make the score proper a philosophical and calming experience. The soprano solos by Elzbieta Towarnicka are utterly ravishing, and all in all this is a perfect introduction to anyone wanting a way in to Zbigniew Preisner’s filmography. Some of his later scores – The Secret Garden, the Three Colours trilogy, When a Man Loves a Woman, Fairy Tale: A True Story – may be more easily approachable to those used to music with a broader orchestral sheen, but The Double Life of Veronika feels more like it comes from Preisner’s soul.

Buy the Double Life of Veronika soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Weronika (0:38)
  • Véronique (0:24)
  • Tu Viendras (2:37)
  • L’Enfance (3:10)
  • Concerto en Mi Mineur (SBI 152) Version de 1798 by Van den Budenmayer (4:28)
  • Véronique II (0:35)
  • Solitude (0:56)
  • Les Marionettes (2:28)
  • Theme: 1st Transcription (0:54)
  • L’Enfance II (0:58)
  • Alexandre (1:14)
  • Alexandre II (1:12)
  • Theme: 2nd Transcription (0:54)
  • Concerto en Mi – Instrumentation Contemporaine No. 1 (0:38)
  • Concerto en Mi – Instrumentation Contemporaine No. 2 (1:13)
  • Concerto en Mi – Instrumentation Contemporaine No. 3 (1:25)
  • Concerto en Mi Mineur (SBI 152) Version de 1802 by Van den Budenmayer (5:19)
  • Générique de Fin (1:26)

Running Time: 30 minutes 29 seconds

Sideral DPI-001 (1991)

Music composed by Zbigniew Preisner. Conducted by Antoni Wit. Orchestrations by Zbigniew Preisner. Recorded and mixed by William Flageollet. Album produced by Zbigniew Preisner.

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