1970s, 4/4, Andrei Tarkovsky, History, Review

Mirror

Mirror (1975) - IMDb

#5 in my ranking of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films.

Movies about the self can often become masturbatory exercises that actively work to exclude anyone not intimately familiar with the filmmaker’s life. Thinking back to a poetry class in college, I remember a girl complaining that you had to have read a biography of Sylvia Plath to understand literally anything about her poems because they were so intimately tied in with Plath’s own personal interpretations of particular images (like, you have to know that the man in black in her poems is her father for the poems to make any sense at all). I preface this review of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror with that small anecdote because I feel like Tarkovsky’s fourth film, the movie he tried to make before Solaris when it was called A White, White Day, is all at once incredibly personal, wildly experimental, extremely non-traditional, and really accessible. The entirety of what you need to know to understand and feel by the end of Mirror is here.

Essentially trying to replicate how the mind mixes memory, dreams, and imagination, Mirror asks the central question, never outright said, of “Who am I?” The title Mirror is a rather perfect one for the film. There are mirrors throughout, but the film’s intentionally fractures story is about a man (the never seen as an adult Alexei voiced by Innokenty Smoktunovsky) reflecting back on his life while dealing with his ex-wife Natalia (Margarita Terekhova) and son Ignat (Ignat Daniltsev). The most obvious way that the past and present end up confused in Alexei’s mind is that Natalia and Alexei’s mother from his childhood are both played by Margarita Terekhova while both Ignat and the twelve-year-old version of Alexei are both played by Ignat Daniltsev. Alexei even says to Natalia at one point that when he looks back into his past he sees his mother with Natalia’s face.

There’s no real story here. It’s really just a series of reflections that ultimately comes to a point. The reflections start in the past when Alexei lived with his mother in Moscow before the war and about the time that Alexei’s father left them. They spent summers at his grandfather’s house in the country. In the field outside the house stands a prominent bush. If a man turns at the bush and comes to the house, it is their father. If the man walks past it and continues on in another direction, it means his father will never return. A man, just a passerby (Anatoly Solonitsyn) who comes up for directions from Alexei’s mother.

There’s a story of Alexei’s mother rushing back to her job at a printing press, absolutely terrified that she had allowed some bit of vulgar language slip through, showing up late in the rain and getting those few still there into a tizzy as she tries to find the error. Relieved at not finding anything wrong, she’s suddenly confronted by Liza (Alla Demidova), her friend who suddenly dresses her down sharply for the entire event, explicitly saying that this was why her husband had left her. How does Alexei know of this? Why does he even think of it? In the present day, his mother had called him with news of Liza’s death, so this is a related memory, probably cobbled together from different stories she had told him. The sudden change in tone and emotion feels like it’s two stories smashed together, but that’s also how memory can work.

There’s an extended sequence of twelve-year-old Alexei in the winter at school learning to fire a rifle at the school’s firing range. He’s berated by his teacher. A trick gets played where a dummy practice grenade gets thrown onto the range, and the teacher throws himself on it, fully expecting the grenade to explode as he tries to save the class. There are present day concerns where Alexei meets with Natasha and they talk about Natasha looking for another husband (namely an unpublished writer that Alexei immediately speaks ill of despite not knowing) as well as what to do with their “idiot” son Ignat. That Ignat looks like Alexei’s image of himself from decades before cannot be lost in the shuffle of images.

A twelve-year-old Alexei and his mother walk miles away from their country home to sell earrings to a neighbor, walking away without the earrings and only promises of payment from the woman’s husband later. Present day Alexei lies on his deathbed. Alexei’s mother and father are reunited after the Second World War’s ending.

So many images, and ultimately it’s about identity. Specifically Alexei’s identity as shaped by the events of his life, namely by his mother’s efforts, as well as his identity as a Russian. There’s a letter that a strange woman asks Ignat to read, written by Pushkin to Chaadayev in the early 19th century, it’s about how the czar and Orthodox Church were hurting Russia, leading Pushkin to embarrassment, and yet he would never leave his fatherland of Russia. It’s about how despite all the sins of his country, he was and would always be Russia, a product of his nation. This letter gets a special place in the film, being read directly out loud, and when combined with some lines of poetry (written by Tarkovsky’s father, Arseny) about how everything is immortal, it shows how the past lives within Andrei. The past he lived and the past that shaped him far beyond his own control is all part of what shaped him, and this film is part of Tarkovsky’s efforts to come to terms with that, it seems.

How can this be relatable? It’s incredibly specific to not only the Russian mode of thought but to Tarkovsky himself. I find it relatable because while the instance is steeped in Russia and Tarkovsky’s personal history, the questions he’s asking are universal, even if they have a deeply Russian affect. They may not be questions that keep me up at night, but they do find purchase nonetheless. This specific instance is told in such a fascinating and involving way, that I can’t help but finding it engrossing.

On top of that, this movie is often gorgeous, like all of Tarkovsky’s films. It’s simply great to just look at. Jumping between different film stocks to help represent different perspectives and time periods (I would be honestly shocked if this wasn’t also a way to limit budgetary concerns based on what I’ve heard of Soviet filmstock), Tarkovsky always knew how to point his camera to create aesthetically pleasing images. The standout, I would say, is an early sequence set in the country when a nearby barn goes up in flames. Filmed mostly from inside the neighboring house, the images have a depth of field and precision of composition that is simply a marvel to look at. Like many of the great visual stylists of cinema, Tarkovsky really understood that film wasn’t just inherently two dimensional but three, knowing to bring depth to the image to enhance what the audience sees.

Out of a short career ruling the art cinema world, Tarkovsky’s Mirror is the most artsy-fartsy film he made. Explicitly experimental in construction, it’s the least accessible. However, I get swept up in it. The questions it raises, the strong performances, and the incredible aesthetics combine for an endlessly fascinating film experience that I really do enjoy.

Rating: 4/4

4 thoughts on “Mirror”

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