The winter that I was 19, after spending the Christmas holidays in Toronto with my family, I returned to my apartment in Montreal to find that it had been broken into. Mildly panicked and unsure what to do, I wasn’t struck by the rational instinct to call my landlord or the police. “Dad,” I blubbered into the cordless receiver. “I’ve been robbed.”
Like any parent answering the distressed call of their faraway teenaged daughter, my dad was instantly on edge. Where was I? What had happened? Was I okay? Once he’d ascertained that I was safe, unharmed and alone in the apartment, he listened to me jabber away about what exactly seemed to be missing. Then, oddly, he went quiet.
In the silence that ensued, the haze of panic dispersing, we must have both reheard bits of our conversation and, with no small degree of embarrassment, made the same realization. We weren’t talking to the right people. I wasn’t his daughter any more than he was my father. “I’m really glad you’re okay,” said this stranger. “Now go call your dad.”
In my haste, I’d dialled the wrong number.
It wasn’t just the overlapping coincidences at play that made this story seem a little extraordinary; it was the fact that my misunderstanding with this stranger was, in a sense, the most trivial part of our exchange. Despite its false premise, our conversation had been meaningful – its emotions and demands were real and I’d hung up the phone feeling calm and emboldened, as though I’d spoken to my actual dad. It seemed a little magical to me that my call for help hit such a common nerve that this stranger was struck blind (or deaf) to my actual identity and we’d both risen above ourselves to play out a universal scene.
It was also a time in my life when coincidences carried a certain mystery – a mystery that might wear off as we age and learn to assimilate life’s accidents and anomalies into a less-questing worldview. I’d grown up in a home of science and logic and turned up my nose at any quasi-religious platitudes that gestured towards fate or the notion that things happened for a reason. Omniscience only existed in novels; in real life there was just chaos and chance. And yet, in the weeks after this phone call, I wandered around McGill’s campus and the streets of Montreal’s Plateau wondering about this girl whose voice and life must have, in some way, resembled my own. Her father’s willingness to help me suggested something meaningful, even intentional, about the world that I couldn’t articulate, but longed to believe.
Around the same time, I first saw the movie The Double Life of Véronique. It was my introduction to the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, a director obsessed with the tension between intuition and reason, fate and chance. By his death in 1996, during open heart surgery at 54, he had an international reputation for his formally beautiful and emotionally haunting films. Dekalog, a 10-part miniseries that aired on Polish TV in 1989, reimagines each of the Ten Commandments as complex, sometimes twisted, moral parables involving characters living in the same apartment block in Warsaw. The Three Colours trilogy, generally regarded as his masterpiece, is structured on the tenets of the French republic (liberty, equality, fraternity), but delves into the messier business of love, betrayal and the way we play god-like roles in each other’s lives.
The art that you identify with early in life can have a special and disproportionate impact. Maybe I hadn’t known at the time that a work of art could tell a story through a kind of powerful equivocation, without centring on a concrete subject or theme. The Double Life of Véronique is a movie about feelings – those that are inexplicable but so deep-seated and integral that they can feel truer than the facts and material realities of our lives. To me at 19, Véronique’s numinous sadness seemed like a natural extension of my own. And while I was always trying to find rational explanations for why certain things worked out in my life and others didn’t, I was seduced by Kieslowski’s evocation of the stuff that makes zero sense but feels inescapable, magnetic – the people and places that seem so right to us that we feel their absence before they emerge.
Insofar as the movie has a plot, it’s a weird one, in which two women who are strangers to each other – one Polish, the other French – seem to be sharing the same life. A classical singer named Veronika has the uncanny sense that she isn’t alone in the world. One day, at a square in Krakow, she sees her double boarding a bus. When Veronika dies of a heart attack while performing in a concert, the French Véronique, hundreds of kilometres away, is struck by an acute sense of grief. Her sadness propels her towards a mysterious puppeteer and, as their relationship develops, through forces that neither of them quite understand, it illuminates her connection with her missing other.
The Swiss actress Irène Jacob was 24 when she made the movie, and people tend to make a big deal about her beauty in it. (The friend I took to see a screening at the Royal Cinema in Toronto in January wouldn’t shut up about it for the rest of the night). But I think that focusing on her beauty misses the point; by letting the camera linger on Jacob’s face, Kieslowski captures the intensity of her internal world through a paradox – its surface. These moments exemplify a wordless intelligence that feels singular to cinema.
Kieslowski once said in an interview that he thought only literature can achieve a full description of what lies within us. He lamented the fact that cinema is, by comparison, both too explicit and too elusive to attempt anything so profound or comprehensive. I find this interesting because, as a writer, film is the medium I envy the most. Emotions can be suggested so lightly on screen; atmosphere exists as if by chance, without any of the labour of adjectives and syntax. Stories can occur in negative space, in the (quite literal) distance between characters, in their uneasy silences and the things they don’t say. Kieslowski’s films play out in the halo around the light, and I want my novels to do that – for the inexplicable to outshine what’s explained.