Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975) is like something out of a dream, or out of many dreams. It is stream of consciousness, in which the protagonist seems to be a young boy, or maybe one disembodied voice (there are two), or perhaps it’s a pretty woman with sad eyes. I don’t claim to know. I do know that there are very few movies like it, ones that are so bold and confident to strive to fail as a film but succeed as a piece of art. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, perhaps it is. The Mirror is not interested in revealing itself to you and is sometimes so infuriatingly dense that it sucks all the joy out of the experience. It isn’t impregnable, however, and though I doubt there are many who understand all its mysteries, with a little work and thoughtfulness, it can be accessed. There I go with the backhanded compliments again.
The movie doesn’t have a story; it has moments: the treatment of a stutterer, the training for war, the mad dash to reverse a professional mistake. These moments are peopled with some of the same actors playing multiple characters or the same character at multiple times: a young boy (Ignat Daniltsev), a woman in her thirties (Margarita Terekhova), a strange old woman (Tamara Ogorodnikova). These performers are surrounded by images of odd and powerful beauty: the burning of a house, the freeing of a bird, a woman levitating above a bed as a dove ascends behind her. Bridging some of these seemingly unconnected moments is the reading of poetry by Arseni Tarkovsky, the director’s father. Together, they serve to create a difficult but interesting tableau of the raising of person.
To deepen this artificiality, Tarkovsky specifically reminds us that we are watching a film. His mixture of styles and the oscillation between color and black and white contribute to the unreality of the storytelling. Further, the man who had already made Solaris (1972), Andrei Rublev (1966) and two other features must have been well beyond being careless enough to let the shadow of a boom mic creep into his frame, but there one is, painfully obvious in the opening scene. It’s one of a number of “mistakes” that Tarkovsky willfully makes. He’s telling his story, but he’s using the only mode of expression known to him; his autobiography will be cinematic.
To that end, the movie is steeped in the practice of the Russian school of movies so much so that it’s been suggested that only Russians can understand it, an opinion that I find to be hogswallow. I don’t think anyone, Muscovite or otherwise, can comprehend it fully. Nevertheless, it employs the editing tricks established by Tarkovsky’s countrymen Eisenstein and Vertov, making points through montage and cutting. Here Tarkovsky extensively uses stock footage of the early days of the Soviet Union to comment on the action, subtly but effectively undercutting the so-called equality of communism by blending together a shot of a throng of people with the clay terracotta army of his comrades in ideology in China. It’s interesting that an autobiography, told nearly exclusively through visual terms, can be so specific and yet so universal at the same time. It’s a technique that has rarely been attempted and even more seldom pulled off, basically lying dormant until Malick achieved it in The Tree of Life (2011), The Mirror’s unofficial companion piece.
The Mirror elicits some of the same reactions one gets when watching Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), one of awe. It has the feeling of greatness. That’s a difficult feeling to obtain. Films like this can backfire terribly, becoming so opaque that they only wallow in pretense and their running time feels interminable. The Mirror is a risky endeavor, but the viewer never doubts that they are watching something important, even if they can’t quite identify why that is. I don’t like the phrase art for art’s sake (is there a better cause than art?), but the movie avoids giving the feeling that elicits that complaint. I’m reminded of the original title of Fellini’s 8½ (1963), a film The Mirror in many ways resembles, which was “The Beautiful Confusion.” Tarkovsky can be frustrating, but the rewards are there, and if you’re willing to accept it, he’s made a movie that can be yours as much as his. Too many movies are happy to exist all by themselves, treating the audience as something close to vestigial. Here is one that needs you, one that, in fact, is an entirely different movie depending on who is watching it. It rejects the notion of the reviewer as the consumer guide. Will you like it? I don’t know, because when you watch it, it will belong only to you.