Saturday, August 8, 2015

Mirror (1975)

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Writer: Aleksandr Misharin, Andrei Tarkovsky
DP: Georgi Rerberg
Editor: Lyudmila Feiginova
Score: Eduard Artemyev
Producer: Erik Waisberg
Starring: Margarita Terekhova, Ignat Daniltsev, Innokenty Smoktunovsky, Arseny Tarkovsky
Length: 1 hr. 47 min.

Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror opens with a shot of a television set.  It is switched on, and we see a woman treating a young man afflicted with a stammer.  She performs a vaguely mystic procedure on him and challenges him to speak clearly.  This has no direct connection with anything else that happens in the film.

Then again, it's hard to say that with certainty.  Mirror is not a conventional film; its narrative (or rather, vague suggestion of a narrative) is split into two parts, with the same actors playing different characters across them.  Some of these characters are called by more than one name.  Many scenes that appear straightforward at first eventually ascend into an illogical, dreamlike territory.  Color repeatedly enters and leaves the film. Stock footage from several different European and Asian military conflicts is employed.  Several scenes are accompanied by poetry written and read by Arseny Tarkovsky, the director's father.  

The two branches of the film's narrative are separated by time.  One takes place before World War II, and the other takes place after, presumably in the 1970s.  The pre-war scenes take place during the main character (called Alexei, though he is called by more than one name throughout the film) childhood, during which he lived with his mother Maria (who is also called by more than one name) in rural Russia.  In the post-war scenes, Alexei is an adult experiencing friction with his ex-wife Natalia over their son Ignat.  Margarita Terekhova plays two different roles: In the pre-war scenes, she is Maria, while in the post war scenes she is Natalia.  In the last moments of the film, we see his ex-wife portrayed by a completely different actress, while Terekhova continues to play his mother.

The two timelienes also separated by differing degrees of objectivity with the camera.  In the pre-war scenes, the camera appears to be an objective viewer, depicting events in the third person.  In the post-war scenes, we never see Alexei, and the camera moves with his gaze; the post-war scenes are shot from the main character's first-person view, except for one scene in which he is not present and one near the end that is shot in the third person.  

All this forms a bridge between the past as it exists in a person's memories and the present as its reality closes in on that person.  Elements of Alexei's memories break into the present, and seem to influence his effect on the world outside his head.  In the one post-war scene in which Alexei is not present, his son wanders his home looking at old books.  Then, an apparition appears and asks him to read a letter by Aleksandr Pushkin, a Russian literary figure; the passage is a lamentation of Russia's ostensible lack of involvement in the most important parts of European history.  Later, we see the mentality behind Alexei's ownership of such books; there's stock footage of World War II, over which we hear Arseny Tarkovsky reading a poem about the desire for immortality and significance. 

It evokes the reverberating emotional effects of war over time.  It displaces people from their lives and brings about upheaval, stimulating the compulsion to cling to permanence - a compulsion linked to nationalism and elitism.  It leads Alexei to obsession, and to the confusion embodied by this film's nonlinear narrative and surreal flourishes. The film's structure forces us to share in the displaced, static nature of Alexei's life.

Describing himself, Tarkovsky said:

"I put myself in the category of people who are best able to give form to their ideas by arguing.  I entirely subscribe to the view that truth is reached through dispute.  Left to study a question on my own, I tend to fall into a reflective state which suits the metaphysical bent of my character and is not conducive to an energetic creative thought process."

The way Tarkovsky describes himself also describes Alexei.  Mirror creates a dispute around the reflective state Tarkovsky mentions. He portrays the state, isolates it within Alexei's perspective, and puts it up for argument.  Tarkovsky believed that viewers were the "co-creators" of his films, and here he asks the viewer to offer their input.  He believed images could have indefinite meaning, and Mirror allows for as many intersubjective possibilities as there are different people in the world.

There is another struggle going on in the film, embedded in constantly recurring images of fire and water that appear in the pre-war scenes.  These images occur independently, except for once at the beginning when a shed burns in the rain.  Maria goes outside, sees the shed, and does nothing.  She can do nothing, after all, and the rain will eventually extinguish the fire.  The film lends itself to a Taoist interpretation of water, as something that is yielding and flexible, and because of that will outlast everything else without sacrificing its nature.  This is what Alexei attempts to do, and apparently believes his mother has done (which disturbs him), but to be yielding and flexible is anathema to him.

Though it comes from outside the film, there is one more thing that should be noted about Mirror: how closely related to Tarkovsky's personal life it is.  Like Alexei, Tarkovsky was displaced to the Russian countryside with his mother after his father left and joined the military in World War II.  Also like Alexei, Tarkovsky went through a divorce in the late 1970s.  He originally intended to include documentary footage of interviews with his mother in Mirror, but the idea was scrapped.  I lack the authority to say this film is supposed to be some kind of autobiography.  It is probably significant, though, that when the post-war Alexei finally sees his mother as she really is, she is not played by Margarita Terekhova, but Maria Vishnyakova - Tarkovsky's mother.

(I wanted to include a trailer, but Mosfilm made it impossible to embed one.  Trailer here.)

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