BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: Tarkovsky’s looking glass.

ANDREI TARKOVSKY is not the easiest filmmaker to watch, and his films, for unsuspecting viewers, can veer from the spectacular (Andrei Rublev) to the downright awful (Solaris). The Mirror is seen as his most personal film and is a convenient middle point from his more detached earlier work (Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev, Solaris) and his more ‘spiritually’ focused later work (Stalker, Nostalghia, The Sacrifice). The Mirror eschews the linearity of his other work, composing his film like a visual fugue in order to explore Tarkovsky’s notions of memory. A melange of his father’s poetry, archival footage, multi-generational storytelling and dreams, the film washes over like a wave. It pays not to think too much about this film, and let the beautifully composed imagery and carefully-constructed sound design work its magic. It’s not surprising that it wasn’t too popular with the Soviet authorities for its perceived elitist leanings.

Musically, fugues work by having numerous melodies working concurrently – a main melody is balanced with a counter-melody or counterpoint. Tarkovsky was a noted admirer of Bach, the composer who used the fugue to create dense, polyphonic ideas through an interplay of subjects, answers, expositions and recurring motifs. Tarkovsky adopts this structure in the film to replicate memory, both personally and collectively. The film opens with a boy triumphantly overcoming his stutter, the opening an optimistic rejoinder to the film’s attempt to come to terms with the past. In effect, the “subject” is the exploration of the individual’s past. The interaction with the past informs the present as the film shifts in tone between 1935 – the height of Stalinist ‘political correctness’, World War II and the mid-70s. There are constant mirrors between the eras – characters, dreams, concerns, memorable artistic moments (e.g. Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings, visual homages to Bruegel, Pushkin’s letter to Chaadayev) which all replicate and get replayed. An example of this was the narrator’s mother and ex-wife being played by the same character.

Tarkovsky also includes a counter-subject with history, and its effect on the collective memory. The newsreel footage has events of celebration – the liberation of Prague, a Chinese crowd cheering Mao, and moments of conflict – the Sino-Russian Border Incident, nuclear bombs, World War II, the Spanish Civil War. Unlike the narrator’s personal story, history is inexorably linear, yet importantly, subjectively constructed. History does affect the individual such as in the unsettling scene in the printing press subjectively constructed with strident noises, slow motion running, and abrasive lighting (especially as the narrator would not have been present in that scene). The boys play out their own mini-version of the conflict while training during World War Two, when a renegade orphan takes on the commanding officer. Tarkovsky underlines that sacrifice is the way to change history, from the Russia of Pushkin’s letter to the officer who throws himself onto the grenade.

It’s of no surprise that Tarkovsky ended the film with Bach’s St John’s Passion. The narrator “dies”, and the final shots appear to be his greatest dream, the culmination of the fugal narrative. His parents are reunited, and he demonstrates his nostalgia for his childhood house and desire for a simplified relationship with nature (an echo of Tarkovsky’s first film Ivan’s Childhood). He also reunites the past and the present with his different characterisation, showing how the narrator has been shaped by history. It’s the final resolution of the multiple strands of the narrative, a final moment of catharsis for Tarkovsky, in an uncomfortable, alienating world.