Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: New to DVD: Doppelgangers and Femme Fatales

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday November 24, 2006

The holiday season is the time of year when the big Hollywood studios roll out their best films, the logic being that the Academy Award voters have short memories. But it is also the time when the studios and the smaller DVD companies bring out many of their most prestigious titles, often in special editions.  

This season has already seen the release of a handful of high-quality editions of great films from the around world. Here is a sampling. 

The Double Life of Veronique 

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique (Poland/France, 1991) is a film of reflections and emotions. Two lives, separate but intertwined through emotion, intuition and sensuality, unfold in a mystic and mysterious movie that is typical of Kieslowski’s work in that it raises more questions than it answers.  

We first follow the story of Veronika, a young Polish woman who is haunted by the feeling that she is never alone. Kieslowski illustrates this by consistently photographing her near mirrors and windows, her reflection providing a double image. Before her untimely death, she happens upon her doppelganger for a fleeting instant, though the double never sees her at all. 

When the plot turns to the double, a young French woman named Veronique, we do not see her reflected in mirrors as she is no longer one half of a composite now that Veronika has passed away. Veronique is alone now, and she intuitively understands this, grieving for the loss which she cannot see or understand but which she feels nonetheless.  

When Kieslowski introduces a puppeteer to the plot, the device may seem a bit trite and contrived, but somehow he pulls it off, shooting the puppetry scenes beautifully and giving the new character a compelling story of his own. And through the puppeteer Kieslowski offers the simplest but somehow the most satisfying explanation of the film: that perhaps God created two Veroniques simply because they were delicate and one was likely to suffer damage.  

Vernoniqe, however, must thus suffer the pain that comes with the awareness that she is the second, that another has suffered so that she might carry on. The puppeteer’s performance depicts an injured ballerina who dies only to transform herself into a soaring butterfly, and Veronique identifies with the story. She knows she has been given a great responsibility. How carefree we are with our possessions when we know we have a spare, and how careful we become when we’re down to the last.  

The Double Life of Veronique was Kieslowski’s follow-up to his monumental Decalogue. It is a departure in that it so lush and mysterious, yet it logically follows up on many of the themes of the previous project. Criterion has just released the film in a two-disc set, complete with several of Kieslowki’s documentary works, interviews with the director and his collaborators and essays by critics. But the most exemplary feature is the commentary track by Kieslowski scholar Annette Insdorf. Too often the commentary track is an abused feature, used simply to laud a film or to provide a shallow glimpse behind the scenes through the voices of a film’s more bankable stars or directors. But Criterion, the company that originated the commentary track, still does it best, bringing in knowledgeable film scholars to provide insight into the medium’s greatest works. 



F.W. Murnau’s Phantom (Germany, 1922) plays with some of the same themes as Veronique. Again an actress plays a dual role. The hero, Lorenz, falls for a girl from a wealthy family at first sight—another character named Veronika. Later he encounters her double, a working-class girl who uses her likeness to Veronika to ensnare the hapless hero, precipitating a rapid fall from grace as the honest, diligent city clerk and poet resorts to thievery, debauchery and gambling to satisfy his mistress’ material desires. Along the way he becomes something of a double himself, for no one recognizes this depraved scoundrel for the chaste, humble man he once was. 

Like Kieslowski’s film, Phantom represents an attempt to visualize psychological processes. But whereas Kieslowski employed a certain mysticism to that end, Murnau relies on the expressionist techniques of his era, using the physical world to reflect the character’s inner life. As Lorenz’s mind falls apart, so does the world around him; buildings threaten to crash down on him, shadows chase him through the streets, and in one extraordinary shot, Lorenz and his mistress, while imbibing in a nightclub, find themselves hurtling downward as though their decadence is leading them straight to hell.  

This presentation on DVD comes from Flicker Alley, a small, independent company with just a few titles to its credit so far. The disc is excellent, reproducing the original tints long missing from the film and providing background material on the movie and the novel from which it was adapted. It also comes with an excellent orchestral score by composer Robert Israel. 


The Maltese Falcon 

As a femme fatale, however, Veronika pales in comparison to Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941). Again we see a woman using her wiles to charm, seduce and, in at least one case, destroy a man. Yet here the mental processes do not reach the surface in quite the same way. Instead they are embodied in dark, almost archetypal characters who play out the drama in a closing sequence that amounts to a directorial tour de force, with all the main characters in a climactic face-off of rapid-fire dialogue, shifting alliances and taut suspense.  

Finally, Warner Bros. has seen fit to release The Maltese Falcon in a set that does justice to this remarkable and influential film. Though the film is justly famous, it has been underestimated over the years. Huston’s debut has been overshadowed by another stunning debut from the same year—Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane—and, just over a year later, by Casablanca, that film that securely placed Humphrey Bogart at the top of Hollywood’s A list.  

But The Maltese Falcon is where Bogart first shone brightly; it was his first leading role in what is widely considered the first film noir. Many of the techniques that receive such praise in Citizen Kane are also evident in Falcon, including the deep shadows and ceilinged sets. And its stark, uncompromising depiction of a less-than-heroic hero set the standard for every noir that came after.  

The three-disc set also includes Warner Bros.’ first two attempts to adapt the Dashiell Hammett novel, neither of which met with great success. And the set does a nice job of trying to capture something of the era in which these films were made by including what amounts to a replica of a night out at the cinema in 1941, complete with a newsreel, cartoons, a musical short and trailers for coming attractions. 

Also included are a documentary about the novel and its many celluloid incarnations, a commentary track by Bogart biographer Eric Lax that has a few informative bits, but for the most part is awkward and badly edited—at least one section is repeated word for word—and a series of bloopers from Warner movies of the era. What is interesting about these outtakes is how similar they are to today’s blooper reels even though the acting styles are radically different. But even then they sputtered, giggled and stumbled through their scenes. Better moments include James Cagney’s inability to sustain his fast-paced delivery, James Stewart’s surprise as the camera follows him out of the room when he thought his work was done, and Bogart’s rather intense self-flagellation when flubbing a line, releasing a torrent of obscenities at himself.  


Pandora’s Box 

G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (Germany, 1929) is one of the most legendary of German films, but one that has been relatively difficult to see.  

Louise Brooks’ femme fatale is not deliberate and manipulative like Brigid O’Shaughnessy, but instead rather childlike and innocent. The film is a showcase for the charm and allure of an actress not much appreciated during her brief career but who has during the ensuing decades come to symbolize the roaring ’20s.  

Brooks’ talent has been much debated; some critics complain that she was just being herself, while others suggest the best evidence of her greatness is that her craft is invisible, that her acting doesn’t at all look like acting. But one viewing of Criterion’s new DVD of the film and it is apparent that Brooks had a remarkable ability to portray precisely the sort of psychological complexity that Kieslowski and Murnau sought in their films. Brooks’ Lulu is a character of intrigue and complexity, and the actress manages to make each internal change register on her face.  

Criterion has published the film in a remarkable set that should serve as a model for other companies looking to preserve and honor the great cinematic works. The set includes essays by film critic Kenneth Turan and by Brooks herself, as well as documentaries and a superb commentary track that provides insight into the film and elucidates its longevity. 

But the best features in the package are the four scores provided, each taking a different approach: a modern orchestral score, a Weimar-era cabaret score, a Weimar-era orchestral score, and an improvised piano score. Each adds greatly to the experience, offering a unique interpretation of the film’s imagery.  


The Fallen Idol 

Criterion has also just released Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol (England, 1950). The film doesn’t feature a femme fatale, but it does feature the dour and much-demonized Mrs. Baines, whose death provides a catalyst to a complex and compelling thriller. But the real subject matter of the film is the loss of innocence as most of the action is seen through the eyes of young Philip, whose reverence for Mr. Baines, the family butler, is threatened when the man’s fallibility becomes all too plain.  

For a complete review of The Fallen Idol, see the Daily Planet’s May 5 edition at 


Also new to DVD . . . 


49 Up 

This is the most recent installment in what has become the longest running documentary film project in history. The Up Series began in 1964 as an examination of the British class system. Interviewing a group of 7-year-olds about their backgrounds, education and goals. 

Every seven years director Michael Apted has returned to interview them again. 49 Up (England, 2006) revisits the original participants in late middle age. Some of the developments are surprising, some are reassuringly predictable, but each tale has its own brand of drama. This film brings to the surface some of the tensions that had heretofore remained in the background in previous installments. Jackie, for instance, no longer keeps her feelings about Apted off camera; she chastises him for taking what she considers a narrow and condescending approach to her and her fellow subjects.  

And Suzy, who transformed herself from a recalcitrant 21-year-old into a doting mother, reveals that even in her more stable years the project’s intrusion on her life has become nearly unbearable, and she doubts if she’ll take the trouble to participate in the next film. 

Extra features include a conversation between Apted and critic Roger Ebert. Inexplicably bad audio mars the interview, and though it contains a few insights, for the most part it merely restates the premise and its results over four decades. 

For a complete review of the Up Series, see the Daily Planet’s Oct. 6 edition at