(Zerkalo) : USSR 1974 : Andrei Tarkovsky : 106 minutes
“Whatever happens, I must make Mirror – that is… a duty… I think constantly about Mirror. It could make a beautiful picture. It will actually be an instance of a film based in its entirety on personal experience. And for that reason, I’m convinced, it will be important to those who see it.”
(Tarkovsky, 7th Sept, 1970)
Whether or not Mirror is Tarkovsky’s greatest film is a matter for the viewer. It’s undeniably his most accessible. Unlike everything else he produced after his debut, Ivan’s Childhood, Mirror isn’t forbiddingly long, nor does it explore matters of challenging philosophy. Uniquely among his seven pictures, scenes take place in a recognisably modern, urban environment. But Mirror is hardly a straightforward watch. There’s no ‘plot’ as such; single actors take multiple roles; we switch episodically back and forwards through time, switching between colour and tinted monochrome, often within the same scene. But you soon grasp what’s going on. For perhaps the only time, Tarkovsky freed himself from conventional narrative altogether, and instead attempted something different – to recreate his own world of memories on celluloid. And it is a stunning success.
Films can only really be validly compared with other films, but that’s easier said than done with a picture like Mirror. It’s as much a poetic and literary project as a cinematic one – Peter Handke’s 70s diaries and notebooks published as The Weight of the World are a good parallel. Tarkovsky uses extracts from his father’s verse (“I’ll conjure up which century I like…” to stitch together an intricate network of images and scenes, memories and dreams, colours and shapes and sounds. The cumulative effect is overwhelming, such is the director’s absolute control over, and confidence in, his material. What we see may only make total sense to Tarkovsky himself – these are deeply personal shards of autobiography he’s manipulating – but that doesn’t mean his audiences will be in any way baffled or alienated. This is his triumph – to create a valid, personal universe into which others can step, sure of their path through the forest of his subconscious.
It seems perverse to summarise or synopsise the ‘events’ of Mirror, but, roughly speaking, it’s the result of a 40-year-old, lying ill in his Moscow flat, looking back over his life. He narrates the story, but we never see his face. He’s separated from his wife (Margarita Terekhova) and child (Ignat Daniltsev), and, when she pays a visit, admits that their relationship partly broke down because he never sorted out his relationship with his mother. Meanwhile Ignat forms future memories of his own. The past is always protruding, unbidden, into the present, and we flash back to various episodes in the narrator’s childhood in the country, some momentous, some apparently trivial – Daniltsev plays the young narrator, Terekhova the mother – interspersed with newsreel footage of key events in recent Soviet history.
While it’s often tricky to establish exactly what’s going on, you don’t care – Mirror is such a seductively watchable experience. This is partly due Terekhova’s astonishing double performance as the mother/wife, at one point gazing hypnotically, full into the camera, as she’s about to kill a cockerel. It’s also because the film is studded with some of the most astonishing images in all cinema. Fire and rain are everywhere, curtains billow in mysterious darkened rooms, winds gust over fields and through forests (Tarkovsky must have used a windmachine for some of these effects). A man lies on a bed, picks up a wounded bird, cradles it for a moment before throwing it up, and it rises in slow motion through the air. There isn’t a single bad shot in the movie, not a single off-note struck. Apparently Tarkovsky went through 20 cuts before he was happy, and it shows, it was worth it. What he ended up with was perhaps the ultimate example of what a supremely talented individual – an artist – can do with cinema. Compared with this, should we even call these other things films at all?
“I should like to ask you all not to be so demanding, and should not think of Mirror as a difficult film. It is no more than a straightforward, simple story. It doesn’t have to be made any more understandable.”
(Tarkovsky, 29th April, 1975)
16th January 2001
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by Neil Young