The great American avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage once hailed Andrei Tarkovsky for cinematic achievement on three levels: telling the epic tales of the "tribes of the world"; keeping his work personal, and reaching his truth via that route; and "doing the dream-work to illuminate the borders of the unconscious". Mirror is a striking and haunting example of this threefold majesty.
It is a beguiling and remarkable film – hard to encapsulate, because so full of the pregnant mysteriousness of places, people and gestures. This fugitive self-portrait by Tarkovsky is an intergenerational affair, in which the terse melancholy of his mother's situation – abandoned in the '40s by her husband and left to raise a son – is mirrored by his own adult relationships (Margarita Terekhova plays both the mother in the past and the present-day wife). Men, largely absent from the story as from the image, appear as voices, and are poignantly identified with the making of art and poetry (the poems we periodically hear are by Tarkovsky's father).
Tarkovsky is a more radical and modernist figure than his Russian heir apparent, Alexandr Sokurov (Russian Ark, 2002). Mirror is constructed as a collage, in which recreated vignettes that deliberately blur past and present are freely mingled with archival footage from several countries and disquietingly disconnected quotations from classical music (Bach, Pergolesi, Purcell). The ambience is dreamlike, secretive, elliptical. Yet there is also a beautiful simplicity in Tarkovsky, aligning him with Terrence Malick: the movement of natural elements (wind, fire, rain), the bottomless landscapes of the human face, and a sense of time passing, conspire to give a sense of the world itself breathing.
Tarkovsky, like Bresson, is a master of the precisely chosen image and sound. The economy of his camera movements and the gradual revealing of the disparate parts of any scene create an aura and an affect that overflow the material reality of what we see and hear, opening a portal to another world. His is a cinema of texture, of aura, and the senses.
Mirror is all at once an intimate confession, a summoning of history, and a cryptic poem.
© Adrian Martin April 2003