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The Double Life of Veronica

December 10, 2014 12:29 pm | 5 Comments

Last night I went to see Kieślowski’s La Double Vie de Véronique (1991) at the cinema, thinking I had seen it many years before. However, I swiftly realized that I had seen only half of the first half, which is about a young Polish singer named Weronika. And I was sorry I hadn’t seen it when I was roughly Weronika’s and Véronique’s age. It might have walloped into my head what a beautiful and fleeting thing youth is, and how I ought to make the most of mine by striving to achieve in those things that made me most happy.

To be fair, though, I did not have the mental or emotional capacity to learn anything from La Double Vie de Véronique for, regrettably, there are three sex scenes in the film–most explicitly in the change from Weronika’s life to Véronique’s–and I would have felt shocked and violated to have seen them when I was twenty. Indeed, I would not have understood anything except that both girls, the tolerant Polish aunt, and the girls’ admirers were a pack of sinners.

When I did see the first half of the first half, I was sufficiently sophisticated to be struck by Weronika’s enjoyment of life, but I could not get beyond her gleeful sexual abandon with her rough-hewn boyfriend. For one thing, the idea of Poland as the most Catholic country in the world was so fixed in my head, thanks to the never-ending media circus around John Paul II, that I assumed that Weronika and Antek had to be devout Catholics and therefore knew that premarital sex was a mortal sin and that they were in danger of hell. How, then, could Weronika be so happy?

“Obviously,” said Satan in my ear, “the Catholics of continental Europe are not as worried about sexual sin as you stupidly suffering, deeply inhibited, Jansenist, Irish-dominated,  unbeliever-bedeviled, English-speaking Catholics. Look at how much fun France-loving Nancy Mitford had at Evelyn Waugh’s and Graham Greene’s expense.”

Not only can the devil quote Scripture, he can quote Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love:

 “Fabrice, how can you go to church when there’s me?”

“Well, why not?

“You’re a Roman Catholic, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am. What do you suppose? Do you think I look like a Calvinist?”

“But aren’t you then living in mortal sin? So what about when you confess?”

“One doesn’t go into detail,” said Fabrice, carelessly, “and, in any case, these little sins of the body are quite unimportant.”

[…]

“In England,” she said, “people are always renouncing each other on account of being Roman Catholics. It’s sometimes very sad for them. A lot of English books are about this, you know.”

“The English are madmen. I have always said it. You almost sound as if you want to be given up […].”

Fabrice almost sounds as if he had never considered that one of his little sins of the body might a whipcord ripping the flesh off the sacred body of the wounded Christ. Of course, that may be because he was modeled on Mitford’s lover, the diplomat Gaston Palewski, whose family’s conversion to Christianity was apparently motivated more by their desire to become French than to unite themselves with Christ.

At any rate, Satan nattered on and I thought that perhaps the sophisticated European Catholics were onto something and somehow sin and joy could go together, and that we Irish-priested English-speaking Catholics were just a pack of misery-guts. This, of course, was a dangerous and evil heresy which I renounced and denounce, and I hope I thoroughly denounced the idea in Ceremony of Innocence to most people’s satisfaction. How deeply horrible if I had gone to hell because of the first twenty minutes of a foreign film.

The temptation to sexual sin is a bigger problem for the unmarried young than for the married old, I suspect, but we all share a big cultural problem, which is how to wrest the good from film, art, literature and philosophy when they present us with sexual scenes.  When it comes to sex in art, there are two big temptations. The first is to accept the artist’s use of sex as the truth about sex, and the second is to be so horrified by any depiction of sex that we close our minds to anything the film, art, author or philosopher has to say.  This is, in fact, itself just another intellectual capitulation to sex. By thinking only of La Double Vie de Véronique  as a locus of sexual sin, the Catholic twenty-something is prevented from putting sex in its place and grasping what the scenes actually mean for the artist. 

When engaging art that includes scenes or themes of sexual intimacy, the viewer or reader needs the capacity to be neither debauched nor frightened.  We accept that children and teenagers are less likely to have this capacity, but even adults find it a challenge. And I admit that it can be difficult to develop, or understand that it should be developed.   One of my first semi-conscious motives in writing Ceremony of Innocence was the cynical desire to see if a contemporary Catholic press would have actually published something by one of Catholic Literature’s favourite sons. To its credit, I do believe Ignatius Press would have indeed published the work of Graham Greene, who was–as anyone who knows anything about Graham Greene has to know–so addicted to sex as to be almost helpless before it and whose books struggle with the stuff.

And this is important because Graham Greene, the writer who was sometimes a believing Catholic, and sometimes an agnostic, commanded the respect of the entire literary world and thus put into millions of non-Catholic heads the ideas that a wicked man’s biggest rival for a woman’s love could be God (The End of the Affair) and that the heroism of an sinful, alcoholic priest is not in being a sinner or an alcoholic but in remaining a priest (The Power and the Glory).  At the same time, he provided Catholics–however imperfect his moral life–with a literary standard. He was neither priggish, nor prurient, nor a propagandist. He could present faith in God from a Catholic point of view without embarrassing anyone.

Greene, of course, wrote for a large mostly non-Catholic audience, whereas my current audience is, as far as I know, almost entirely Roman Catholic. And in so far as I have any didactic goals–for propaganda is the death of art–they primarily take Roman Catholics into consideration. And that can be very risky because I demand a lot from readers, for example, to consider what makes a sinful sexual relationship sinful by entering into the mind of a sexually sinful woman, and to consider the difference between sexual innocence and sexual ignorance.

Now that I am vastly more intelligent than I was when I first saw part of the film, which may not be saying a lot, but I am glad it’s the truth, I am guessing that the motives of the sex scenes in Kieślowski’s La Double Vie de Véronique are as follows:

Scene 1. to illustrate Weronika’s impulsive, live-for-the-moment take on life which suggests youthful self-absorption and a certain immaturity regarding the feelings her deeply smitten lover.

Scene 2. to illustrate how sex is certainly not the royal road to emotional intimacy,  how Véronique certainly doesn’t think it is, and what a poor substitute it is.

Scene Three. to illustrate how sex is still not the royal road to emotional intimacy, no matter what Véronique’s lover thinks, and even if it cheers her up a bit. Meanwhile, she’s still going to die one day.  To misquote Father Hopkins, it is Véronique she mourns for.

At the same time, although I agree with these ideas (if, indeed, they were Kieślowski’s), I have the age and experience to say that he still did not get Weronika quite right. I do not believe a girl of that age, in that country, at that time, and of that personality could be quite that carefree about premarital sex. Speaking as a woman (what a wonderful phrase), I think Kieślowski was wrong.

That said, the man wasn’t making  a documentary.  And I think this can never be told to children, teenagers and young adults too often: stories, even stories on TV and on film, are not documentaries or to be taken as infallible guides to What Life is Really Like. If the stories are shallow, they should be ignored or forgotten, and if they are deep, one must look below their surfaces. In the case of great or good art, one must not make either a god or a demon of the artist’s use of sex.

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living in Scotland. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She has been a regular contributor to The Catholic Register (Toronto). Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.

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5 Comments

  1. December 10, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    Thank you so much for this well-thought article. This is a conversation I’ve often had with fellow Catholics who can’t seem to get over the “shock/shut down” response to anything regarding human sexuality. I really feel this is as dangerous a response as just thoughtlessly gobbling it up. Bravo on this thought provoking piece!

  2. December 10, 2014 at 5:33 pm

    I had a similar reaction to a sexual encounter in a popular PBS series. Besides the fact that as every Catholic knew, “premarital sex was a mortal sin” and that a couple who engaged in it “were in danger of hell,” even for non-Catholic women sexual intimacy outside of marriage was a huge risk. A woman’s reputation was more important that anyone would believe nowadays. A girl was “ruined” if she had sex before marriage. “No decent man” would want to marry her. If a girl was used and abandoned, it could be the destruction of her life or lead her to suicide. Pregnancy would mean that the girl would be shunned and impoverished, sometimes driven to prostitution to support herself. So the likelihood is remote thhat any well-bred (that is well instucted) girl who respected herself would gleefully ignore all those facts and just persue the pleasure.

    I personally don’t want to expose myself to “art” that uses sexual scenes because 1, it prostitutes the actors and acresses who perform it whether it’s supposed to have some sort of redeeming artistic value, 2, it shows the inability of the writer to get his or her point across without being explicit, and 3, watching suggestive and sometimes soft or hard core scenes is a sin in itself, because it’s an occasion of sin, and it will likely lead to other sins against chastiy.

  3. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    December 11, 2014 at 10:06 am

    @M. Thank you! @Roseanne. If the PBS series is the British one I am thinking of, and if the episode to which you allude is the one with the Turkish diplomat’s son, then I stopped watching it for that very reason. It was utterly unbelievable that Lady Mary would behave like that–at very least, before she was married. The situation was tasteless, voyeuristic and sordid. In my opinion, that show is just big budget trash.

    But what about art that is not aiming for the lowest common denominator, but the highest? What about a Catholic who has to engage with high art for he himself is an artist, writer, film-maker, or a student who hopes to become one? Should he completely avoid seeing any contemporary films or photography of a sexual nature, e.g. at the art gallery or art film cinema? How could such a Catholic learn from famous films without falling into sin?

    These are serious questions. I am never comfortable with sex scenes in films, and generally slouch down in my seat and stare at the bottom of the screen. But I wouldn’t want to avoid a good film for that reason.

  4. December 12, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    I Just saw the movie You are not you (2014) with Hillary Swank and got some related thoughts to your post. The opening scene is in a shower where there is sex, and this relates to a way of understanding life as something stereotypical, something superficial (here I am in the shower and have good sex with my wife). The power of this scene is no in the erotical details, but in the contrast it produces by later on having another scene of Hillary in the shower but being struck by a disease which just paralizes half of her body.

    I think that some sex scenes have that power to say much with so little. First scene being the message: I am a normal person enjoying the pleasures of being married with a beautiful woman that I enjoy even sexually. And secon dscene being: now my beautiful wife is paralysed, I am in the verge of divorce because now I dont shareany pleasure with her and my life has been turned upside down by her disease.

    So in this case the superficial sex scene served to show a way of understanding life before and after the main thing that happens in the movie, namely the disease f Hillary.

    I also thought of the diffiulties that actors must meet when they play these scenes, being so close to each other physically and still be acting. I dont knw how they manage to put the mental distance while being so physically close (and in physical contact). For me it remains a mistery.

    Thanks for your comments it was nice reading you (Gustavo from Sweden)

  5. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    December 13, 2014 at 3:41 am

    That is very interesting. I wonder if that is portraying the role of sex in marriage truthfully or falsely. The way you word it sounds as if the message is that the husband sees his wife primarily as a source of pleasure, as Scripture tells married men not to do. Of course, I suppose this could be a temptation for men, especially younger or immature men. If the message of the film is “Oh poor guy, his sex life has been ruined”, then it is definitely not a film I want to see.

    But surely the juxtaposed scenes are not about the husband, but about the wife? It is the wife alone in the shower in the second scene, after all. And therefore the message would not be “Oh poor man, robbed of the pleasure of his wife because she is defective,” but “Poor woman, her husband is leaving her to struggle on her own.”

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