The Mirror (1974)
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Margarita Terekhova, Ignat Daniltsev, Oleg Yankovskiy
My Rating: 8/10
In Short: Intriguing non-linear historical drama
The Mirror, or simply Mirror as many prefer to call it, is one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s less accessible and more thought-provoking dramas. It presents us with a style that Tarkovsky would not perfect until Stalker and Nostalghia, and many typical and well-developed tropes that the director had already used many times. There are very few long tracking shots here (unlike Stalker and Nostalghia), and the plot is a lot more difficult to follow, and seems at times too empty or simply incomplete. You may see these things as criticisms of the film, but allow me to clarify: these tactics he has adopted work to the film’s favour, but only if you are used to Tarkovsky’s cinema. If this is one of your first Tarkovsky films, steer well clear. It requires some prior knowledge of his work and style, as well as an acceptance that we cannot expect to understand everything in one, two or even three viewings. I have only seen it once, and I am certain that I do not understand it fully and that repeat viewings will prove to be essential. But is it even possible to understand a Tarkovsky film fully? He is a mysterious director, and this is his cleverest, most intriguing work; one that deserves more attention and study than all the others.
The story is about a middle aged man who is dying; we never see him, and hear only his voice. He is reminiscing about his childhood as well as confronting the people he knows now, and reflecting on how events he experienced as a boy growing up during World War II may have affected the way he acts and thinks today. This is the plot, but Tarkovsky relishes in letting it unfold in a strangely enticing non-linear order. It’s not incredibly difficult to follow, but there is always an uneasy feeling that there is more to the story than we are being shown, and that the reality of growing up in wartime was far more complex than the generation of the 70s and future generations could comprehend.
The film opens with a stuttering man being subjected to what may be hypnotherapy. The “therapist” tells him they are conducting a séance. But what spirits are they trying to speak to? If it is a séance, it is not a traditional one in the sense we are used to. The scene cuts away earlier than we expect, and leaves us befuddled. Much of the movie will do this, but it is often in a good way, as it supplies us with puzzle pieces to put together. There are recurring images throughout the film, and Tarkovsky uses black-and-white and colour cinematography to blur the lines between past and present. We sense difficulty in the protagonist’s childhood: a divorce has distraught and lasting effects, and World War II is in a way, the antagonist of the film, a haunting shadow that has nothing but negative emotions carrying it.
The stunning cinematography is only as good as the images it photographs, and there are a myriad of lasting images that Tarkovsky uses to punctuate certain stark, serious events. “Words are flaccid,” one character says (the main character, incidentally), and indeed this seems to be true. Visual images speak louder than even the most articulate sentences. The title itself contains the key to some of the images: mirror. There are mirrors everywhere in this film, often appearing subtly in the background but sometimes engulfing the screen. The historical wartime stock footage is a refreshing but startling break from the composed camerawork of the plot, but it is integrated between scenes so cleanly that it feels just as important as all the other scenes, and not just excessive showing off of war atrocities.
This is Tarkovsky’s most enigmatic film. The powerful feeling it exudes of an eerie, dreamlike reality is haunting, and the cinematography enhances this beautifully. The protagonist’s son is given a large amount of screen time, and we sense in him the echoes of his father as a youth. We see him growing up in a normal, peaceful Russia juxtaposed with images of his father, only a boy when he learns to use a gun and participate in military procedures. The two boys are so similar, it is almost as if we are watching two stories of the same person in different times. And this brings us back to the title: mirror. Could it be a metaphorical mirror? The man’s son mirrors himself as a child. The camera mirrors the actors and their characters, the landscapes of 70s Russia and 40s Russia, and scenes in colour and scenes in black and white. When the characters stare into a mirror, they analyse their reflection, contemplate it. And so do we. You never know what you might see when you look in the mirror.