“Never try to convey your idea to the audience – it is a thankless and senseless task.” – Andrei Tarkovsky
Over the course of his brilliant career, Andrei Tarkovsky has grappled with questions concerning time and existence. In his 1975 film Mirror, these philosophical investigations reach their blinding apotheosis. Probably one of the least accessible works by Tarkovsky, Mirror is a film that needs to be watched over and over again until it conquers your dreams.
In interviews and his journal, Tarkovsky expressed his frustrations about viewers who complained that the film was “difficult”. There is a famous anecdote where the filmmaker recalls one particularly heated debate after a screening of Mirror. Intellectuals were busy dissecting the dense themes and the complex narrative techniques, unable to reach a consensus on the film’s meaning. The cleaning woman who was tasked with kicking them out of the screening room grew impatient with their digressions. Since she had watched the film earlier, she gave her opinion in order to stop the endless discussion: “Everything is quite simple, someone fell ill and was afraid of dying. He remembered, all of a sudden, all the pain he’d inflicted on others, and he wanted to atone for it, to ask to be pardoned.” Tarkovsky was stunned that she had grasped the central theme of his masterpiece, despite the repeated failures of critics and academics. To him, it was undeniable proof that his art had the power to connect with people and mirror their own sufferings.
Structured in the form of a fascinating, non-linear dream, Mirror is the story of Alexei – a dying man who explores the crevices of his troubled mind in his final moments. Tarkovsky himself said that the film is a semi-autobiographical work that deals with episodes from his own life, translating his anxieties about mortality and human connection to the cinematic medium for the audience to comprehend. Mirror discards the comfort of narrative continuity and chronological time, choosing to investigate the human condition through ruptures in the protagonist’s life.
In accordance with the oneiric theory of cinema that believes films are similar to dreams, Tarkovsky presents us with recollections of a rural childhood that was spent in the absence of a father who had been drafted into the military. The filmmaker’s own father, famous Soviet poet Arseny Tarkovsky, embodies this essence as the distanced narrator who reads portions of his own poems and remains absorbed in his own work.
The fading protagonist was primarily raised by his mother (played by Margarita Terekhova), the main figure who connects Alexei’s unreal past to the grim reality of his present. Stuck in a Freudian loop, he thinks of a younger version of his mother with the face of his wife (also played by the same actress). The actor who plays his adolescent son Ignat is the same one who plays a younger Alexei, a brilliant allusion to the fallacy of memory and the subversion of an absolute truth. Tarkovsky’s dialectics are truly unique: oscillating from colour to black-and-white, from fiction to documentary footage, from dreams to memory.
Even though Tarkovsky has insisted that Mirror is neither surreal (he hated surrealism) nor an outright example of symbolism, audiences have always believed that the spectacular imagery of the film exists on registers of reality that are different from the ones we are used to. Some of Mirror’s iconic shots have been immortalised in film history, like the silent anguish of the burning house or the mystical act of levitation conducted by Alexei’s mother. To me, the scene that remains embedded in my mind is the haunting moment when his mother sees an old woman instead of the reflection of his wife’s face. It is the sudden resurgence of reality, immediately reminding us that death is inevitable.
Alexei’s world, or at least the one he lets us observe, is purely solipsistic. He cannot get out of his own head, struggling with childhood fears and unwanted memories of war. Despite it all, he wants to return to those days because it would give him a chance to redo everything. The desperate hope of a living corpse: “I can’t wait to see this dream in which I’ll be a child again and feel happy again because everything will be ahead, everything will be possible.”
It is tragic that the possibilities he envisions are impossible, unable to reverse the cosmic tyranny of entropy. Like Tarkovsky (the invisible filmmaker), Alexei is also largely missing from his own world. Due to his mysterious illness, he is restricted to a room full of mirrors but none of them can present his reflection. This is the central conflict of the film: can cinema mirror reality? In Mirror’s case, it definitely can and it does so in a subjective manner – offering varying revelations to different people like a beautiful Rorschach test.
Although we see Alexei’s torso in one of the scenes, that is no longer his body. His body is the film itself, composed of his fears, his hopes, his dreams and his desires. As we slowly come close to the end of Mirror, we realise that it was the film that was on fire all along. We just witnessed Alexei’s suicide by self-immolation as a futile act of rebellion against the indifference of the universe.