In Poland in 1968, a little girl is shown the stars in the winter sky by her mother, who identifies the Christmas Eve star. In France, a little girl is shown one of the first leaves of spring by her mother, who points out the fine veins running through.
In Poland in 1990, a young Polish woman named Weronika (Irène Jacob) is singing at an outdoor concert with her choir when a sudden downpour causes the singers to rush for cover. Weronika alone continues to hold the last note while the rain falls on her smiling face. After the concert, Weronika meets her boyfriend, Antek (Jerzy Gudejko), and they go to his apartment to make love. The next day she asks her father to tell Antek she is leaving to be with her sick aunt in Kraków. She tells him that lately she feels she's not alone in the world.
Weronika travels to Kraków by train looking out at the passing landscape through a small clear rubber ball. At her aunt's house, Weronika talks about her boyfriend, then meets a friend at a concert rehearsal. As the choir rehearses, Weronika, who is watching offstage, accompanies them in a beautiful high soprano voice. Afterwards, the musical director asks her to audition. Overjoyed, Weronika rushes home with the sheet music. On the way, she passes through Main Market Square, where a protest rally is in progress. One protester runs into her, causing her to drop her music folder. After retrieving the sheet music, Weronika notices a French tourist taking photos of the protestors—a young woman who looks exactly like her. Weronika smiles as she watches her double board the tourist bus that soon pulls away.
At the audition, Weronika's singing impresses the musical director and conductor, and she is later told that she won the audition. The next day, while on a trolley studying the score, Weronika notices her boyfriend Antek following on his motorbike. When they talk, she apologizes for not returning his calls, and Antek tells her he loves her. Later, while getting dressed for the concert, Weronika presses her face against a window and sees an old woman with shopping bags slowly making her way along the street. That night during the concert, while singing a solo part, Weronika collapses onstage and dies—her spirit passing over the audience.
In Paris that day, a young French woman named Véronique (Irène Jacob), after making love with her former boyfriend, is overwhelmed with sadness, as if she were grieving. The next day, at the school where she teaches music, Véronique attends a marionette performance with her class. During the performance—a story about a ballet dancer who breaks her leg and then turns into a butterfly—Véronique watches the puppeteer controlling the marionettes. Back in her classroom, she leads her class in a musical piece by an eighteenth-century composer, Van den Budenmayer—the same piece performed by Weronika when she died. That night while driving home, she sees the puppeteer at a traffic light motioning to her not to light the wrong end of her cigarette. Later she is awakened by a phone call with no one speaking, but in the background she hears a choir singing the music of Van den Budenmayer.
The next day, Véronique drives to her father's house where she reveals she is in love with someone she doesn't know, and that recently she felt she was alone—that someone was gone from her life. Back in Paris, Véronique receives a mysterious letter containing a shoelace which she throws away. That night she is awakened by a strange light reflecting from a neighbor's mirror. Véronique retrieves the mysterious shoelace, and later while contemplating her recent EKG graph, she holds the shoestring across the graph paper in a straight line, alluding to a EKG showing no activity.
Véronique learns that the puppeteer is a children's book author named Alexandre Fabbri (Philippe Volter), whose marionette story was based on his book Libellule & Papillon. One of his other books is about a shoelace. In the coming days, Véronique reads several of Alexandre's books. When Véronique visits her father, he gives her a package addressed to her containing a cassette tape. When she's alone, she listens to the mysterious recording of a typewriter, footsteps, a door opening, a train station, and a fragment of music by Van den Budenmayer. There are also sounds of a car accident and explosion. The postage stamp on the envelope leads Véronique to a Gare Saint-Lazare train station cafe where she believes the cassette recording was made. There she sees Alexandre sitting by himself, as if waiting for her. He tells her he's been waiting for her for two days, that he's working on a new book, and that this was a kind of experiment to see if she would come to him. Angered at being manipulated, Véronique leaves and takes a taxi to a nearby hotel, After checking in, she sees Alexandre, who apparently ran after the taxi. He asks for her forgiveness, and she brings him up to her room, where they both fall asleep. During the night, he wakes her up and tells her he loves her, and they make love.
The next morning she tells him, "All my life I've felt like I was here and somewhere else at the same time." While looking at a proof sheet of photos taken on Véronique's recent trip to Poland, Alexandre notices what he thinks is a photo of Véronique, but she assures him it is not her, that she in fact took the photo—of a young Polish woman carrying a music folder. Véronique crumples the proof sheet and breaks down in tears. Alexandre comforts her and they make love again. Later at his apartment, Véronique sees Alexandre working on a new marionette with her image. When asked about the purpose of a second identical marionette, Alexandre explains, "I handle them a lot when I perform. They get damaged easily." He shows her how to work the one marionette while the double lays lifeless on the table.
Some time later, Alexandre reads his new book to Véronique about two women, born the same day in different cities, who have a mysterious connection. Later that day, Véronique arrives at her father's house, stops at the front gate, and reaches out and touches an old tree. Her father, who is inside the house, seems to sense this without seeing it.
The film has a strong fantasy element, though the supernatural aspect of the story is never explained. Like the later Three Colors: Blue, it showcased Preisner's musical score as a major plot element, crediting his work to the fictional Van den Budenmayer. The cinematography is highly stylized, using color and camera filters to create an ethereal atmosphere; the cinematographer, Sławomir Idziak, had previously experimented with these techniques in one episode of Dekalog, and Kieślowski would later use color for a wider range of effects in his Three Colors trilogy. Kieślowski had earlier used the idea of exploring different paths in life for the same person, in his Polish film Przypadek (Blind Chance), and the central choice faced by Weronika/Véronique is based on a brief subplot in the ninth episode of Dekalog.
The film was shot at locations including Clermont-Ferrand, Kraków and Paris.
A Criterion Collection region 1 DVD was released in November 2006 in the United States and Canada, which includes an alternative ending which Kieślowski shot at the request of Harvey Weinstein of Miramax for the American release. Kieślowski added four brief shots to the end of the film showing Véronique's father emerging from the house and Véronique running across the yard to embrace him. The final image of the father and daughter embracing is shot from inside the house through a window.
The film was scored by Zbigniew Preisner. In the film his music is described as being by Van den Budenmayer, a fictitious eighteenth-century Dutch composer created by Preisner and Kieślowski for attributions in screenplays. Music "by" the Dutch composer plays a role in two other Kieślowski films: Dekalog (1988), and Three Colors: Blue (1993) in which a theme from his musique funebres is quoted in the Song for the Unification of Europe. Its E minor soprano solo is prefigured in Weronika's final performance.
The puppet acts in The Double Life of Veronique were performed by American puppeteer and sculptor Bruce Schwartz. Unlike most puppeteers who usually hide their hands in gloves or use strings or sticks, Schwartz shows his hands while performing.
The Double Life of Veronique received mostly positive reviews. In her review in Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Jenny Jediny wrote, "In many ways, The Double Life of Veronique is a small miracle of cinema; ... Kieslowski’s strong, if largely post-mortem reputation among the art house audience has elevated a film that makes little to no sense on paper, while its emotional tone strikes a singular—perhaps perfect—key."
In his review in The Washington Post, Hal Hinson called the film "a mesmerizing poetic work composed in an eerie minor key." Noting that the effect on the viewer is subtle but very real, Hinson concluded, "The film takes us completely into its world, and in doing so, it leaves us with the impression that our own world, once we return to it, is far richer and portentous than we had imagined." Hinson was particularly impressed with Jacob's performance:
This is an actress with an uncanny openness and vulnerability to the camera. She's beautiful, but in a completely unconventional way, and she has such changeable features that our interest is never exhausted. What's remarkable about her performance is how quiet it is; as an actress, she seems to work almost off the decibel scale. And yet she is remarkably alive on screen, remarkably present. She's a rare combination—a sexy yet soulful actress.
In her review in The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, "Veronique is poetic in the truest sense, relying on images that can't be turned into prosaic statements without losing something of their essence. The film suggests mysterious connections of personality and emotion, but it was never meant to yield any neat, summary idea about the two women's lives."
In his review in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote, "The movie has a hypnotic effect. We are drawn into the character, not kept at arm's length with a plot." Ebert singled out Sławomir Idziak's innovative use of color and cinematography:
This is one of the most beautiful films I've seen. The cinematographer, Slawomir Idziak, finds a glow in Irene Jacob's pre-Raphaelite beauty. He uses a rich palette, including insistent reds and greens that don't "stand" for anything but have the effect of underlining the other colors. The other color, blending with both, is golden yellow, and then there are the skin tones. Jacob, who was 24 when the film was made, has a flawless complexion that the camera lingers near to. Her face is a template waiting for experience to be added.
In 2009 Ebert added The Double Life of Veronique to his Great Movies list. Krzysztof Kieślowski's Dekalog and The Three Colors Trilogy are also on the list.
In his review for Empire Online, David Parkinson called it "a film of great fragility and beauty, with the delicacy of the puppet theatre." He thought the film was "divinely photographed" by Slawomir Idziak, and praised Irène Jacob's performance as "simply sublime and thoroughly merited the Best Actress prize at Cannes." Parkinson saw the film as "compelling, challenging and irresistibly beautiful" and a "metaphysical masterpiece."
Film critic Marek Haltof sees the film as a political allegory in which Weronika represents Poland and Véronique France, or the West: both are highly cultured, but while Véronique is seemingly free to choose her destiny, Weronika's early death represents the sacrifice of Poland during the Second World War and its subsequent incorporation into the Soviet bloc; Véronique senses this loss without realizing what it is, and that she is incomplete without Weronika.
At the All Movie web site, the film received a 4-star rating (out of 5) plus "High Artistic Quality" citation. At About.com, which specializes in DVD reviews, the film received 5 stars (out of 5 in their critical review. At BBC, the film received 3 stars (out of 5). Finally, on the aggregate reviewer web site Rotten Tomatoes, the film received an 85% positive rating from critics based on 26 reviews.
The film was the 50th highest-grossing film of the year with a total of 592,241 admissions in France. In North America the film opened on one screen grossing $8,572 its opening weekend. In total the film grossed $1,999,955 at the North American box office playing at a total of 22 theaters in its widest release which is a respectable result for a foreign art film.
A digitally restored version of the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection. The release includes audio commentary by Annette Insdorf, author of Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski; three short documentary films by Kieślowski: Factory (1970), Hospital (1976), and Railway Station (1980); The Musicians (1958), a short film by Kieślowski’s teacher Kazimierz Karabasz; Kieślowski’s Dialogue (1991), a documentary featuring a candid interview with Kieślowski and rare behind-the-scenes footage from the set of The Double Life of Veronique; 1966-1988: Kieślowski, Polish Filmmaker, a 2005 documentary tracing the filmmaker’s work in Poland, from his days as a student through The Double Life of Veronique; a 2005 interview with actress Irène Jacob; and new video interviews with cinematographer Slawomir Idziak and composer Zbigniew Preisner. It also includes a booklet featuring essays by Jonathan Romney, Slavoj Zizek, and Peter Cowie, and a selection from Kieślowski on Kieślowski. 1991 Cannes Film Festival Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (Krzysztof Kieślowski) Won
1991 Cannes Film Festival FIPRESCI Prize (Krzysztof Kieślowski) Won
1991 Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actress (Irène Jacob) Won
1991 Cannes Film Festival Nomination for the Golden Palm (Krzysztof Kieślowski)
1991 Los Angeles Film Critics Award for Best Music (Zbigniew Preisner) Won
1991 Warsaw International Film Festival Audience Award (Krzysztof Kieślowski) Won
1992 César Awards Nomination for Best Actress (Irène Jacob)
1992 César Awards Nomination for Best Music Written for a Film (Zbigniew Preisner)
1992 Golden Globe Awards Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film
1992 Guldbagge Awards Nomination for Best Foreign Film
1992 Independent Spirit Awards Nomination for Best Foreign Film
1992 National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Foreign Language Film Won