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Past imperfect: Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror

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The Mirror

**** – excellent

A two-part narrative scheme is not one that the cinematic artform is unfamiliar with. Stanley Kubrick put the idea to its best use in Full Metal Jacket (ironically, the ingenious narrative of the film is considered by many to be the film’s major weakness) – but perhaps Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror is the runner-up. As always, he shifts from black and white to color – from past to possibly present, using the same actors in different, yet somewhat parallel, parts. The title refers to this mirror of stylism, time, setting, memory, influence and characters.

Memory is the key theme in Tarkovsky’s middle work (the fourth in his seven major films, a “mirror” which stands in the middle of his career) – and the memories are clearly his own. The film’s scenes range from painful and nostalgic memories of childhood, beautiful archive footage from the (WWII) era, dreams and the indescribable. Tarkovsky had claimed the simplicity of the film as being a story, but narratively it is his most complex – stretching the limits of cinematic narrative structure.

Memory is also the key weakness. Nothing in the film is meant to be symbolic or surreal (Tarkovsky denied both), and essentially it all has to be read as literally and simply as possible to fit Tarkovsky’s vision for what the film was meant to be. The problem with doing so is that the film can only be fully appreciated for its stark beauty, stylism and narrative technique – whatever emotion or thematic material is muddled in what is basically an “in-joke” between Tarkovsky and, well, Tarkovsky. In interviews he expressed a confusion over why many consider the film to be “difficult” – but this confusion most likely came from the fact that he had the benefit of hindsight, whereas the rest of us do not.

Solaris, the film that came directly before and helped fund The Mirror, has been noted by Tarkovsky as his weakest film – most likely because it lacks the autobiographical and spiritual content (although still contained both, or at least the latter) that haunted the films that came before and after. The Mirror can easily be described as a film that most likely fulfilled Tarkovsky’s desire to pour his soul into his work. While it results into a confusing and detached work (no matter how hard Tarkovsky pleaded it was not) – the result also marks a dreamlike and ultimately surreal (ironic considering his distaste for surrealism and noted it was not his intention for the work) experience.

The two-part “mirror” structure contains more comparisons to Kubrick’s Jacket (which opted for a clear front-to-back structure, unlike the weaving Tarkovsky does in his film) than just the fact that both are the best examples that I’ve seen. Both are portraits of war (one being of those involved in battle, the other one of those who are not) – but the most blatant of those comparisons being the fact that both past elements in the two films are meant as explanation of sorts for what happens in the “later” portion in both. Memory and past experience are an altering of who we are as people in Tarkovsky’s film – there are elements of clear pain (as well as joy, and who knows what) in the memories, that result in pain in the “present”.

The film’s ending is one such memory – a poetic reminder of childhood, and a longing for the more pleasant portions of it.

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