Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975) – BlogalongaRusskie #4
We’re at the halfway point. I say “we,” but there are only a few still willing to tackle the challenge of watching every one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. So cheers to The 24th Frame, Spaceship Broken and A Tremendous Amount Of Wheat for posting reviews.
And, as you’ll see below, we now know why the Godfather of Blogalongs decided not to get involved with this one.
(Andrei Tarkovsky, Rus, 1975)
Like all mirrors, this one reflects back the image of the person looking at it. In this case, it reflects me looking very confused
When I started out on my project of watching all of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, I must admit I was daunted by the director’s reputation for being cold, austere and humourless. And then, I started watching. Yes, these are long, slow, melancholy and meditative films but they’re surprisingly accessible, recognisable as genres – WWII thriller, biopic, sci-fi – and full of relatable themes and personalities. And then along comes Mirror, and suddenly I can see the reflection of Tarkovsky’s daunting reputation.
This is the one: the single most art-house film I think I have ever seen. It’s too much for many – The Incredible Suit, the guy who inspired BlogalongaRusskie in the first place, claims he wouldn’t join in because he’d have to watch Mirror again. It’s not enough for others – it’s a mainstay of the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They? top 100, the IMDB of chin-stroking cinephiles. Somewhere in the middle is me: excited, bored, enchanted, annoyed but mostly confused.
What is Mirror? It is quite unlike other films, even Tarkovsky’s previous work. It’s an intentionally plotless, opaque stream-of-consciousness, weaving in and out of an unseen narrator’s life to juxtapose the formative experiences of his pre-war childhood, the trauma of living through war, and the difficulty of family life as an adult. But nothing is clear: colour switches to black-and-white, filmed drama gives way to newsreel footage, actors play multiple roles; ‘reality’ is obscured by arty dream sequences.
Oh, and who is the protagonist? Tarkovsky himself, recreating his parents’ lives, ruminating on past and present, cheekily putting a poster of Andrei Rublev in the frame like he’s Quentin Tarantino or summat. It’s wildly indulgent and wilfully obscure, and any new director trying to make a film like this would be locked out of the editing suite. But somebody as big and evidently brilliant as Tarkovsky earns the right to crack one off occasionally – and ‘crack one off’ is right, because the only way to describe the film is as artistic masturbation.
However… the interest here lies in the fact that Tarkovsky was an established talent when he made this, so there are pay-offs to watching it as long as you’ve seen Tarkovsky before. It’s almost an exam after watching the earlier films. Are you keeping up? Do you get it? Tarkovsky repeats scenes and symbols – flashbacks to a kid’s weapons training can’t help recall Ivan’s Childhood, footage of a balloon flight reminds of the opening to Andrei Rublev, and the use of the same actress, Margarita Terekhova, to play the narrator’s wife and mother links back to the altered reality of Solaris. And there’s the overall theme of the past, and the persistence of memory – and what a persistent niggle it is, randomly invading our consciousness, always in flux. Mirror is a film that reminds us that what we remember is less the events themselves than the look and feel of things. So despite a narrative that is (deliberately) all over the place, this is a remarkably tactile film, one whose visuals are so organic the film seems to smell of smoke and rain and pine.
Somehow, although the obfuscation is incredibly annoying, this is such a startling, inventive film I can’t help admire it – not least because films I genuinely love (for example, Cronenberg’s mighty, much underrated Spider) have been obviously forged in its image. And no matter how hard Tarkovsky tries to pretend he isn’t a thrilling, moving filmmaker, there are passages here to compare with his best. A panicky flashback of his mother racing through a printing factory, because she thinks she’s let an error through in the proof-reading, is a marvel of bravura tracking shots, ducking and darting amongst workers and equipment. A startling sequence showing the collapse of a ceiling in a water-logged house is the champagne bottle that launched a thousand MTV promos. And Margarita Terekhova, forever caught between anguish and rapture, is a face worth holding a mirror up to.