Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror is poetry in motion. Not everyone likes poetry, and not everyone gets poetry. I don’t always get poetry, for example, but I often like the way words sound phonetically, and I like what I remember about The Mirror, even if they are just fragments in my mind.
Like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, The Mirror is a film deeply personal to Tarkovsky and his life experience. It jumps forwards and backwards through time, depicting a boy’s childhood and adulthood though the focus of both time periods is the boy’s mother and ex-wife, played by the same woman. Tarkovsky’s film is much shorter than many of his previous works (about 108 minutes compared to 180), but it feels much longer and more grand because of the jumps through time. Some of the flashbacks are in color while others are in black and white. The same goes for the ‘present.’ In other moments Tarkovsky uses slow motion and a stripped down audio track to make the scene barely above silent. He moves the camera slowly and methodically so that it travels like a ghost with a mind of its own, and he uses surreal imagery like a floating body or a leaking house to evoke a feeling I’m still trying to investigate.
There’s a story somewhere in The Mirror, but it’s not all that important. This film is about memory and emotion. It’s meant to make you feel a certain way and allow you to find something meaningful within its text. So much of the movie is silent, and so much of the imagery is abstract. As Tarkovsky once said, “A book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books.”
The Mirror is like a dream. It’s the rumination of an older, dying man who narrates a poem or series of poems (read by the director’s own father) while he revisits various moments from his life.
After a black and white prologue in which a woman compels a man to lose his stutter, we jump into a serene moment with a young woman watching over a quiet field. The color palette and camera movement brings the moment to life, at least when compared to the static black and white of the previous scene, and much of the scene feels unscripted. A man walks up, sits on the fence with the woman before it breaks under their combined weight. Then he laughs while lying in the ground before leaving. He stops for a moment, small in the frame, and looks back while a breeze suddenly picks up, causing dramatic waves through the field. It’s a moment that could not have been planned.
The woman is the boy’s mother, who we will later see as his ex-wife. As an adult, he addresses their similarities, though it’s clear they only look the same because the boy has similar feelings towards the two of them. From what I recall, there isn’t much difference between the two characters. They blur together as if playing the same person.
Much of the movie blurs together, really. There are unique vignettes involving a printing press, the war and a large house fire. In one of the most striking scenes of the film, the boy and his mother watch the house fire while the camera takes its time catching up to them. It circles through the house, focusing on a car as well as on a cup which falls to the floor. It lingers on the spaces made empty by the departing characters, like a spirit left behind.
The basic story is that the boy, Alexei, grew up during the war where he and his family left Moscow for the quiet countryside before later serving in the war, I believe. We only see this in a scene in which a man jumps on what he believes to be a live grenade only for it not to explode. We learn a little about the war as well through old newsreel footage.
Alexei as an adult speaks on the phone with his mother, but we don’t see him, we only hear him. Later he fights with his ex-wife but again his voice is much more present than his physical presence. It’s almost as if the camera is his point of view.
Now, I’ve already forgotten much of the film, only days after watching it, so my ‘analysis’ is probably incredibly flawed. What I will say is that there is a scene later in the film in which young Alexei looks at himself in the mirror, and the camera lingers there, giving more emphasis to the moment. That plus the movie’s title, and it seems like there is a lot of importance given to the nature of vision or at least of visual recollection. Sometimes it feels as though the camera is Alexei’s perspective, and other times it’s a more omniscient, patient point of view of something else.
There is much more to say about the film, but I need to re-watch it. As of now I remember this as the dying recollections of a middle-aged man whose memories are as disjointed as our own. The camera pushes into the story at the beginning and pulls out at the end, much in the same way. These two scenes take place in the same place, at the same time of evening. We’re in that quiet, pastoral landscape with the mother and the children. In the end there is an older lady leading Alexei and his sister through the field, and I’m not sure why but I remember thinking the older woman might’ve been his own mother. As an elderly woman with the young children, this would be a blending of time periods, with Alexei remembering himself as a child alongside his mother as she would have been when he died.
They walk through the field while the camera slowly pulls away, back into the forrest with all the dark, silhouetted trees which slowly obscure our view. You can’t tell right away if the image is fading to black or if we’re just moving further into the forrest. At some point it feels like death, leaving behind not just the memory but everything as we know it.
So again, The Mirror is a movie about feeling. It’s very loosely structured though maybe with more narrative purpose than I can comprehend. This is a film that begs to be re-watched though one careful viewing might be enough. It’s one of those films that demands your full attention, like a near two hour meditation. What you see in this story reflects back something you see in your own.
Up Next: THX 1138 (1971), Solaris (1972), Cool Runnings (1993)