The Double Life of Véronique

The Double Life of Véronique ★★★★★

The following is excerpted from a 2007 article by Jonathan Rosenbaum called “Potential Perils of the Director’s Cut,” which was reprinted in his 2010 book Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. I include only the section on The Double Life of Véronique.

Once revision becomes an issue, any notion of a single director’s cut has to be discarded. (The same considerations apply, of course, to revisions of literary works by their authors after their initial publication.) And how we evaluate the status of multiple director’s cuts of the same film varies from case to case. To cite a rather extreme theoretical example, I’d like to quote something from Krzysztof Kieślowski regarding his original plans for La Double Vie de Véronique:

“At one stage we had the idea of making as many versions of Véronique as there are cinemas in which the film was to be shown. In Paris, for example, the film was to be shown in seventeen cinemas. So we had the idea to make seventeen different versions. It would be quite expensive, of course — especially at the last stage of production — making internegatives, individual re-recordings and so on. But we had very precise ideas for all these versions. What’s a film?, we thought. Theoretically it’s something which goes through a projector at the speed of twenty-four frames a second and, in fact, the success of cinematography depends on repetition. That is, whether you project in a huge cinema in Paris or in a tiny cinema in Mława or a medium-sized cinema in Nebraska, the same thing appears on screen because the film passes through the projector at the same speed. And so we thought, Why, in fact, does it have to be like that? Why can’t we say that the film is hand-made? And that every version’s going to be different? And that if you see version number 00241b then it’ll be a bit different from 00243c. Maybe it’ll have a slightly different ending, or maybe one scene will be a tiny bit longer and another a bit shorter, or maybe there’ll be a scene which isn’t in the other version, and so on. That’s how we worked it out. And that’s how the script was written. We shot enough material to make these versions possible. It would be possible to release this film with the concept that it was, so to speak, hand-made. That if you go to a different cinema, you’ll see the same film but in a slightly different version, and if you go to yet another cinema, you’ll see yet another version, seemingly the same film but a little different. Maybe it’ll have a happier ending, or maybe slightly sadder — that’s the chance you take. Anyway, the possibility was there. But as always, of course, it turned out that production absolutely didn’t have the time, and that, in fact, there wasn’t any money for it either. Perhaps the money was less important. The main problem was time. There wasn’t any time left” [Kieślowski on Kieślowski, edited by Danusia Stok, London/Boston: Faber and Faber, 1993, pp. 187–188].

Kieślowski went on to explain that there were in fact two versions of the film because he made a different version of the film’s ending for America. In fact, although he didn’t say this, the separate, “happier,” and somewhat less ambiguous ending he edited for the U.S., which was four shots longer, was done at the request (or perhaps at the demand) of Miramax’s codirector at the time, Harvey Weinstein, after the film showed with its original ending at the New York Film Festival in 1991 and Miramax had agreed to distribute the film. According to an article by Weinstein which I read years ago, and which I don’t have access to now, Kieślowski congratulated Weinstein on the brilliance of his suggestion and said that it was better than his own original ending. According to Kieślowski himself, however, his thoughts about the matter were somewhat different and more cynical: “Of course I thought about the audience all the time while making Véronique so that I even made a different ending for the Americans, because I thought you have to meet them halfway, even if it means renouncing your own point of view” [ibid., p. 189].

The difference between Weinstein’s and Kieślowski’s accounts seems crucial. According to Weinstein — whose article was clearly an explanation of why he was so brilliant that he could only improve other people’s films by re-editing them, which he then proceeded to do with a large number of his subsequent releases, with or without the director’s approval — the “true” director’s cut of Véronique would be the U.S. version, precisely because he knew or understood Kieślowski’s intentions better than the filmmaker did himself. (This is the same argument that was recently made to me by Michael Dawson — an American film technician who has already revised the soundtrack of Welles’s Othello and plans to revise the soundtrack of Chimes at Midnight in the near future by adding the sound of neighing horses to one shot “because if Orson were alive today, I’m sure he would have done it himself.”) According to Kieślowski — and, I’m happy to report, according also to Criterion, who just released the film on DVD — the director’s cut is the original one released everywhere except for the U.S., so that the American ending on the Criterion DVD is included simply as a bonus. But it’s important to add that this distinction can be made only if we limit Kieślowski to one director’s cut; if he’d produced seventeen director’s cuts, as originally planned, the issue would be much harder to resolve.