No film warrants the tag ‘this film isn’t for everyone’ quite like The Mirror. If there is a single film that encapsulates what the word ‘avant-garde’ really means, then it is The Mirror. Trivial nuisances like plot, dialogue and character are forgotten in service of creating an overall cinematic mood. It uses stark images to assault the audience and provoke from us a purely emotional, rather than intellectual, response. In other words, it is a collection of visually powerful scenes with few overarching links between them. In other words, it’s extremely bizarre. Consequently, there will be people who find The Mirror about as riveting as an audiobook of Ulysses read by Bernie Fraser.
It is, undoubtedly, a very difficult and somewhat impenetrable film. Director Andrei Tarkovsky, who also directed Solaris, Stalker and Andrei Rublev, completely repudiates the notion that audiences can only be immersed into a film through conventional means like a narrative plot or predictable characters. His aim is instead to bamboozle the audience so its bravura visual style and unadulterated emotional acuity washes over you and leaves you in a state of utter awe. Unlike Days of Heaven, which I could describe in much the same way, The Mirror makes absolutely no logical sense. Watching The Mirror really is an experience. If you try to make sense of it, you may have an aneurism. But remember, this is why I like the film.
For those of you unaware of what The Mirror is, then I should step down from the lofty heights of my pretentious high horse and backtrack a little. The Mirror is a Russian film from 1975 that follows several key moments in the life of the ‘protagonist’ Alexei, a ‘character’ loosely based on the director Andrei Tarkovsky. We see Alexei as a child before WWII, as an adolescent during the war, and as a middle-aged man after the war, all set within the changing landscape of Russia in the 20th Century. When I say it ‘follows’ Alexei’s life, it doesn’t follow any chronological order, and it vacillates between the three timeframes – in other words, a scene from his adulthood will be followed by a scene from his childhood.
The scenes that make up the film make little narratological sense. Actors play multiple characters, but not in a wacky Dr. Strangelove kind of way. The adolescent Alexei and the adult Alexei’s son Ignat are both played by Ignat Daniltsev. The child Alexei’s mother Maria and the adult Alexei’s wife Natalia are both played by Margarita Terekhova. I know, it’s getting confusing already. Then there’s the oscillation between colour and black-and-white cinematography for no particular reason at all – there’s nothing especially that links all the black-and-white scenes together, and nothing that links all the colour scenes together. Couple this with the permeating oneiric quality of the film, as the events depicted in the film are predominantly dreams and memories, and you have one of the most confounding movies ever made.
Each scene is a personal dream or memory from the director Tarkovsky. But instead of using, say, black-and-white to signify the dreams and colour to signify the more realistic memories, Tarkovsky lets the audience decide which scenes are dreams and which are memories by not subscribing to any strict set of rules. We can assume that the brief scene in which a young Maria, Alexei’s mother, floats several feet in the air above her bed (shot in black-and-white) is derived from a dream, but is the scene where the young Maria simply washes her hair (also in black-and-white) from a dream or an actual memory?
The Mirror is an extremely difficult film to describe, and an even harder film to describe why I love it. The Mirror perplexes me to no end, because on paper, it should be the most impenetrable film ever made. But films don’t exist on paper; they exist on the screen. And because the whole film consists of the dreams and memories of the director, there is an intangible, metaphysical intimacy between the audience and the film in every scene. Yes, it is impenetrable and confounding. But for all its avant-garde propensities, it is one of those rare films that completely immerses you into the onscreen world without any hint of slowing down or letting you go.
Much of this has to do with its extraordinary visual audacity. Every time I watch The Mirror, I am left emotionally shattered by its beauty. The cinematography by Georgy Rerberg finds an odd kind of beauty in hallways and claustrophobic spaces, as the camera waltzes in a lyrical fashion. The camera moves very slowly, much like the film, and mundane activities like running down an empty street are framed with the same style of beauty as the snowy rural landscapes are. A book is as beautiful as a bird. Then other times, the camera remains static, and now it’s up to you to let the sheer natural power of the imagery wash over you without assistance from the camera movement. The shot of a peculiar doctor wandering through a barren Russian field; the shot of Maria’s barn being engulfed by flames; the shot of a young Alexei standing by a leafless, isolated tree.
Don’t try to analyse or over-analyse this film too deeply. I’m sure The Mirror has some kind of underlying sense to it, but I think Tarkovsky is the only one who knows how to make sense of this film. I don’t know what the Oedipal connotations of casting the same actress to play Alexei’s mother and his future wife are. I don’t know why there is news footage of the Sino-Russian conflict intercut into the film. I just submerge myself into a measured and moody aura of emotions, imagery and symbolism, and bask in my bewilderment every time I watch it.
This is a film so difficultly fascinating that I can’t help but watch it over and over again. I really don’t know what The Mirror is supposed to ‘mean’, and I doubt I ever will, but I will never tire of revisiting it. Obscure yet unforgettable, it transcends everything that a film is ‘supposed’ to be, and becomes one of the most beautiful works of art, in any medium, ever made.