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.