Our culture teaches us how to understand our culture. From the very first moment our parents deposited us in front of a screen, we began learning how to understand the content of our culture. Every work of film and televisual art teaches us not only how to decipher the creator’s messages and intent, but also how to understand other works drawing on similar cultural traditions and so the more films we watch, the better we get at watching films.
Most of us allow the limits of our culture to be determined by the commercial interests of multinational corporations. While many people with refined tastes would argue that this is the cultural equivalent of a fast-food only diet, the truth is that even corporate culture continues to evolve. For example, today’s children are able to follow the kind of complex time-travel narratives that would have been completely inaccessible to people from our parents’ generation. All cultures teach, it’s just that some cultures place more emphasis on different forms of expression.
One of the great pleasures of art house and world cinema is discovering directors who work in idioms so far beyond the norm that it is like being transported back to that moment when your parents dumped you in front of a screen and you had to struggle to work out what was going on. The images held your attention — how could they not? — but their meaning remained opaque until you had lived a little, learned a lot, and caught up with the language of your chosen culture. Andrei Tarkovsky was a director who expressed himself in so singular a fashion that he pushed back the boundaries of what cinema could achieve and spoke in a tongue so alien that we are still struggling to understand what he intended to say. While Tarkovsky is perhaps best known for such mind-bending science fiction epics as Solaris and Stalker, Mirror is a much smaller and more personal film. In fact, this film is so intimately personal that viewing it feels like experiencing the memories that flicker behind the eyes of dying man.
The film opens with a teenage boy watching a television programme in which someone with a terrible speech impediment is cured of their affliction by a strange combination of hypnotism, spirituality, and brow-beating. The ugly black and white television footage then gives way to gorgeously muted colours as a beautiful woman (Margarita Terekhova) sits on a fence surveying the wind-swept lands around her home. The narration suggests that she might be waiting for the return of her husband but the only person to walk along the path is a doctor who sits beside her on the fence, causing it to collapse while he tries in vein to seduce her. We are then transported into the woman’s house where she rouses her shaven-headed children and informs them that a barn has caught fire. In those same beautifully-muted colours, the barn burns to the ground as the wind blows and nobody does anything to put out the fire.
These three scenes set the film’s terms of engagement in so far as while the connections between them might not be obvious, every single one of them lingers in the mind simply by virtue of being incredibly strong images.
As the film progresses, Tarkovsky provides us with clues allowing us to piece together a context that might make some sense of the apparently unrelated images: What unites the images is the fact that they are all taken from the life of a man who never really appears on screen as an adult. While the memories appear in no obvious order, they are all drawn from three periods of the man’s life: His childhood on a rural farm, his adolescence spent preparing to go to war, and his adult years in the post-War period. The images from the farm are taken from the first period but the actor playing Alexei’s mother Maria also plays his wife Natalia just as the child who plays the adolescent Alexei (Ignat Danilsev) also plays Alexei’s son Ignat. The connections between the various timeframes are further complicated by the Russian fondness for nicknames meaning that characters are not only played by different people but also referred to by completely different names.
Further context comes in the form of newsreel footage from historical conflicts including the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the Sino-Soviet border conflict of the late 1960s. Some critics have taken the inclusion of these historical documents as a sign that The Mirror was intended as some sort of metaphorical history of Soviet Russia but most viewers would be hard-pressed to relate these historical images to Alexei’s memories, let alone extract some sort of coded historical critique. Tarkovsky is a subtle director… far too subtle for anything as vulgar as political commentary. Indeed, while the newsreel footage is quite striking, it is no more or less striking than the passages in which Tarkovsky invites his father to recite his own poetry while the camera stalks through empty rooms.
The significance of the images is further complicated by occasional lapses into fantasy and moments where Alexei’s memories appear to have intermingled with his memories of works of art. For example, there is one lengthy scene in which Alexei’s mother sells some jewellery to a neighbour and the woman keeps admiring herself in the mirror in a style that recalls Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting Girl with the Pearl Earring. This blurring of memory also happens when teenaged Alexei is standing in the snow in a pose reminiscent of Pieter Bruegel the elder’s Hunters in the Snow. These scenes pose the question as to whether Alexei is misremembering moments from his own life or whether those moments stayed with him precisely because of their similarity to works of art. In truth, the only person who could possibly hope to answer this question is Tarkovsky himself as the images are said to have been inspired by his own life but the presence of fantastical imagery does at least allow for the possibility that Alexei’s memory is dynamic and prone to the same kind of revisionism that affects the memories of real people.
Like many of Tarkovsky’s films, Mirror is fiendishly difficult to parse. For those not familiar with his style, the only comparison that springs to mind is to imagine a version of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but without the science-fictional conceits and without the memories all revolving around one character’s love for another. Watching Mirror is very much like sitting in on the final memories that flash before the mind’s eye of a dying man. The memories may not fit into any particular order or cohere into relatable stories but you can see how these memories might make a life and how their beauty would cause them to get lodged in the mind of a dying man. Mirror is not an easy film to watch and the reactions it tries to get from its audience are a million miles from the hollow excitement and sentiment that clog the screens of our local cinemas. This is not a film for everyone but those who accept its challenge will be forever changed for just as our culture trains us to understand our culture, alien cultures encourage us to view our culture with all new eyes.