(Originally posted at www.tkatthemovies.com)
Shifting between black-and-white and color at will, Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror left me be bewildered, stunned by the poetry of its images but confused as to what exactly had just unfolded. While the big picture might have been lost on me while watching, I never found myself less than hypnotized by the Russian master’s tracking shots, the surreal imagery and the sheer beauty of the individual moments. As I look back on the film, its ambition and vision have become clearer to me, if only a bit. I eagerly await the opportunity to revisit this film again, to further parse through Tarkovsky’s cinematic poem on memory, both personal and collective.
One of the film’s most disorienting but thought-provoking elements is its dual casting. While there’s no traditional plot, there are moments and images from different times – before, during and after World War II, plus all of the places where these sheets of time compress into one. Margarita Terekhova plays Alexei’s mother in scenes from the past and his wife in the present, just as Ignat Daniltsev plays Alexi at age 12 in some scenes and his son in others. As he explains, Alexei sees his wife Natalia in memories of his mother because of their physical similarities. More than a mere Freudian comment, the device positions The Mirror as a subjective reflection on time. Classical Hollywood cinema’s linear understanding of time makes way for the ambiguities and compressions of human memory.
The scene that explains the duality of the characters also speaks to the uncertainty of the images. Here, the wife Natalia’s face is seen only in a mirror’s reflection as she listens to the words of Alexei (whose older, present-day face is never seen). The moment hearkens back to the title of Tarkovsky’s film, how these characters are never truly what they appear but instead reflections shaped by the contours of the character’s subconscious. Tarkovsky suggests the ways in which we constantly project our present selves onto the players of our past and vice versa, and consequently how our understanding of time is never free from subjectivity.
The Mirror’s use of documentary footage further enhances the sheer self-awareness of the personal history. Newsreel footage from the Spanish Civil War, the Sino-Soviet border conflict, World War II and the Chinese Maoist revolution is interspersed throughout the film. Footage of soldiers slowly moving along are juxtaposed with personal tales, of young men receiving rifle training and pulling pranks on their superiors. Tarkovsky understands how images of wars and revolutions factor into an individual’s psyche. Particularly in the Soviet Union, personal and public histories are, if not one and the same, deeply connected. These images don’t undermine the subjectivity of The Mirror but instead point to how we interpret even documented moments of the past through our own experiences.
Despite the intellectually challenging nature of The Mirror, there are genuinely emotional insights into the difficulties of family life. Footage of the atomic bomb is featured, yet in the context of the film, a family’s reunion with their father feels more emotional. Both characters played by Daniltsev are fatherless, one because of war and the other because of divorce. And though Alexei appears fixated on his mother, conflating her with his own wife, he seems unwilling or unable to reach out to his mother later in life. Though Tarkovsky’s style is significantly more experimental, the sort of modern dissatisfaction at the core of Yasujiro Ozu’s tragicomic films pervades The Mirror.
Even when these ideas and themes aren’t readily apparently, the images themselves have a power of their own. In one shot, a physician walks into the distance but later stops in his tracks, the wind then blowing through the grass. The patience of Tarkovsky’s long takes and these moments enrich the film with texture. There are also the striking dreamlike images – a woman’s unseen face covered by her hair, a body levitating over a bed. Even now, the meaning of the surreal moments isn’t clear to me, but they still evoke the mystery and atmosphere that pervade this film.
All of these images are brought on by the character’s impending death. Nostalgia is fundamentally driven by a fear of the onward march of time and consequently human mortality. The Mirror is essentially a dying man’s reflection on his life, all parts of a whole that don’t necessarily fit together neatly. Tarkovsky delivers a personal vision that’s at once an intellectual comment on the nature of human memory and one man’s beautifully messy portrait of different moments in time, distinct but concurrent. At age 23, I can only imagine what effect this movie will have on me 20 or 30 years from now.