The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Mirror (1974/USSR/dir. Andrei Tarkovsky) appeared at #13 on my original list.
What it is • Everything is in luminous black and white, as if the images had been etched in a glowing stone. Awakened by a distant whistle, a child (Filip Yankovsky) slides out of bed and walks toward a large doorway. A split-second before the cut, something white floats through the frame, a garment caught in a gusty breeze even though we're inside. Then we are watching a stern man (Oleg Yankovsky) step out of view, revealing the woman (Margarita Terekhova) whose head he has just soaked. Her hair hangs down in an uncanny fashion that suggests her hair is her face (an effect recalled in the Japanese horror film The Ring and its America remake). We float back as she dangles her wet locks back and forth in slow motion; parts of the ceiling collapse in wet chunks, splashing onto the watery surface of the floor while a flame shoots up out of a stove in the background, an act of lonely defiance amidst the indoor torrent. The woman passes across our sight, parting her hair to reveal a strikingly beautiful face which locks eyes with us for a moment - although in fact this is her reflection, caught in several mirrors clustered around each other. We continue to slide away until all is dark. • The scene is set in color, defined by the greenery of the surrounding grass and trees, the brown wood of the log cabin, and the golden-orangish glow cast through the cabin's window. These colors are faded yet somehow still vibrant, exuding a warmth which is soothing, but not quite comforting. The boy and the woman, his mother Maria, huddle outside this cabin and introduce themselves as strangers from Moscow who have been relocated to the countryside. Shivering in the drippy weather, Maria's polite conversation implicitly asks for an invitation inside, but the woman of the cabin (Larisa Tarkovskaya), exuding a quiet defiance, is not particularly forthcoming. The child watches, lips locked and eyes scowling, soaking up the tension without necessarily being able to articulate why it exists. Turning near the window, outlined in the low light's glow, her hair tied in a kerchief so tight it resembles a skull cap, the hostess looks for all the world like a figure out of Vermeer. If the previously described sequence clearly spoke in the silent, subconscious language of dreams this moment plays out as an authentic fragment of reality, poetically pregnant but not revealing its secrets. The significance is locked away beneath the functionality of the gestures and speech. • Between these two marks, a boy (the same actor but a different character) wanders through an empty house. A offscreen chorus builds to an ominous crescendo as a frosty smudge on glass evaporates, and then all is quiet again except for a ringing phone. The boy answers it and speaks to his father (the grown version of the boy we saw in the other sequence), who tells him that when he was his age, during the war, he was in love with a redhead. And then we are back in time, looking at this bundled-up girl as she tramps through the snow. The following series of events, photographed in the pale white, blue, and brown of a Russian winter, could almost stand as a self-contained short film - an instructor (Ignat Danitsev) tries to impress firm but not too harsh discipline on a group of very young adolescents, including the stubborn oprhan Asafiev (whose actor I can't find). Asafiev resists his orders and nearly destroys them all with a grenade that fortunately turns out to be a dummy (thinking it's live, the instructor leaps on top of it, ready to sacrifice himself for the hapless child warriors). Then we are suddenly viewing old, scratchy newsreel images of soldiers dragging supplies through icy tundra, thick mud, and rippling waterways. Loud splashes and sighs fill the soundtrack, clearly added afterwards to the pre-existing footage, a present erupting from the past. • I chose all three of these sequences at random, by jumping back and forth across a YouTube video of The Mirror in its entirety. Like fragments half-remembered from a dream, they can hint at hidden treasures. I can't hope to approximate "what it is" in a mere paragraph, however long, so it seemed right to dip inside the film and explore certain moments up close before pulling back to explain why they add up to something so memorable.
Why I like it •
I'm surprised there aren't more Tarkovsky films in this series. A year after composing my list, I voted in an "Alternate Oscars" poll and chose Stalker for best of 1979, beating out Apocalypse Now (which is on the list) so I can't explain whichever whims led me to initially rank the latter film higher. What does not surprise me, however, is that the only Tarkovsky film to show up, and show up very high, among 100 favorite films is The Mirror. Most of his other movies, that I've seen, apply a meditative, avant-garde style to a traditional narrative, often even genre material. But The Mirror is experimental to its core, mixing documentary, found footage, home movie, fictional re-enactments, autobiographical narration, and pure painting-in-motion visual setpieces. Impossible to pin down, the overall experience is nonetheless cohesive, flowing with the rhythmic logic of a dream. And rhythm is the key word here, as with all of Tarkovsky. It's difficult to describe the trancelike effect of his distinctive style in words, but he essentially is able to achieve through continuous motion - of figures, of the camera itself - what is usually only possible through cutting. As if he had inherited the spirit of Soviet montage masters of the twenties but applied that same sensibility to a different technique, Tarkovsky fuses two seemingly opposed definitions of pure cinema. Above all, everything resonates. I'm hard-pressed to think of another director whose films feel so pure in form. The subject of The Mirror is "how we see" more than "what we see" but his scenes are not abstractions. They involve the human form, convey particular emotions, take place within a specific historical and geographical context. Rather than taking us away from reality, this visionary transcendence is helping us to see reality more clearly. Here I have to step back and encourage you to see The Mirror and let it speak for itself. I can only offer suggestions of its power, whispers in the wind that hopefully complement the experience of watching it without ever fully conveying that experience.
More from me • The first clip described above is featured at 4:54 in "Welcome to the Arthouse", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series.
How you can see it • The Mirror is on YouTube (there's also a version with Spanish subtitles) and for digital rental on Amazon. It's also available for DVD rental on Netflix.
What do you think? • Is this Tarkovsky's masterpiece; if not, which film would you describe as his strongest achievement? Do you respond viscerally to the dreamlike style of The Mirror or do you view it more intellectually? What other movies can echo this form or, even among experimental or essay films, does it feel totally unique to you?
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Yesterday: Taxi Driver (#14)
Tomorrow: Jammin' the Blues (#12)