Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Mirror’ is a Movie That Feels More Like Real Life

Andrei Tarkovsky Mirror

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before, and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course, it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they struggle to find the best way to talk about Andrei Tarkovsky’s mostly autobiographical dreamscape Mirror— a movie that has become unstuck in time.

In the #18 movie on the list, a series of plotless scenes coalesce while skipping from wartime to moments before and long after the war. Stutterers are cured, barns are burned, and life continues in the shadow of newsreels. So it goes.

But why is it one of the best movies ever?

Landon: So, Andrei Tarkovsky opens his book of reflections on his own films, Sculpting in Time, with a series of letters he received about Mirror. While many letters he recounts praise the film, and one even accuses Tarkovsky about somehow spying on the viewer’s own childhood as material for the film, the first review, interestingly, is by a “woman civil engineer” who writes, “I sat through the end, despite the fact that after the first half-hour I developed a severe headache as a result of my genuine efforts to analyze it, or just to have some idea what was going on…”

It’s evident that, whether inside or outside the historical and national context, this is a difficult film that has produced an incredible range of responses. What was yours? Did you develop any physical ailments in your viewing experience?

Scott: I didn’t, but I also didn’t try to analyze it too deeply. But I also avoid analyzing dreams. This was my first time to see Mirror, and I had the benefit of knowing a bit about it, but it still left me feeling nostalgic for things I’ve never experienced.

Landon: Interesting. Anything specific? What moments triggered that response?

Scott: It was less so specific moments, more so the overall feeling that runs throughout – that dreamlike presentation people point to. I can see how some would be put off by it, but there’s something fascinating about a creepy doctor falling off a fence, talking about falling in love, and then bringing up the nearby roots and bushes. It makes absolutely no sense, but there’s a poetic voice that’s consistent.

Landon: And that gust of wind – it’s like Tarkovsky was directing the elements.

Scott: Ha, yes. The god of Whatever This Is.

Landon: That’s what I’ve found myself drawn to in his films. There’s something about his representation of events that doesn’t really make sense in movie logic but is really resonant in terms of lived experience. It feels less like he’s directing than observing, and giving time and space for these things to enter the frame of the film.

When, of course, he’s not, because this is easily some of the most meticulous camerawork we’ve seen so far.

Scott: For me, it just felt like he was working with the language of theater more than movies.

Some of the character movements are designed specifically to create one of those meticulous shots (and not because they’d move naturally), but that and some of the dialogue made it seem like I was watching a play on my screen.

How did you respond to Mirror on an emotional level?

Landon: I didn’t, which is strange. Tarkovsky is one of my personal favorite filmmakers, and I usually get heavily involved in his films. I definitely had a subjective experience, but one of immersing in somebody else’s memories. My own emotions didn’t come into play.

Scott: Wow. Does that seem like a failure then? Or do we have to look at Mirror as, you know, sorry, a mirror?

Landon: I’ll have a lot more to say about personal emotional involvement when we get to the other two Tarkovsky films on this list. But in terms of Mirror, I think it’s fascinating on an intellectual level. And like all of Tarkovsky’s films, it gives me an uncanny sense of living outside space and time. But I’m simply not able to replicate others’ emotional involvement. I won’t call that a failure though, because I think the movie is one of the most honest (and, oddly straightforward) representations of memory that I’ve ever seen.

It’s a mirror. It’s just not mine.

Scott: It’s a mirror, but when you look into it, you see a Russian filmmaker who never finished his degree in Arabic. That makes sense.

This is a fantastic film, and it’s one more example of plotless storytelling that’s actually interesting.

Landon: Considering our conversation last week, I was wondering what your take on that was going to be.

Seven Samurai and Persona, by the way, are on Tarkovsky’s personal top-ten list. This is certainly more the latter than the former.

Scott: Although I did love the 30-minute sword fight at the end.

I may have watched a different cut…

Landon: The barn-burning was probably a Seven Samurai tribute too.

Did you feel that there was a logic to the non-narrative approach because of its take on nostalgia, memory, and dreams? And what’s your interpretation — is the film made of memories, dreams or both?

Scott: Absolutely. I’ve been struggling to pinpoint why, though, but the whole film feels connected. Or connected enough to have some consequence to it. But I’m not sure how to delineate between a movie made of dreams and one of memories.

I mean, I guess it’s not like anyone sprouted wings and flew to Brazil…

Landon: I like that the black-and-white/color devices are never consistent, confusing our sense of time and place. It also draws parallels between the narrator’s childhood and his child, and his mother and wife, who are played by the same actress. Strangely enough, I thought they were different actresses at first, instead of a Freudian dreamscape move.

Scott: But this isn’t a dream-like movie from, say, Salvador Dali or anything. It’s far more grounded. And no one slices through an eyeball.

Landon: Exactly. Or wakes up to find that St. Elsewhere was all just imaginary.

I take to Tarkovsky’s description that film is not meant to be surreal, but literal, which makes me think Mirror might be a strict representation of the process of memory – we’re never actually living in a linear present.

Scott: So Mirror actually represents life a bit more closely to how life really is.

After all, we never experience stark linearity in real life. Although I guess we also never get wholly lost in moments from the past.

Landon: I think the WWII newsreel footage is important in that regard. We typically think of images like these as somehow an objective archive of the past – but public events we never experienced firsthand and images put together by others become part of our own subjectivities.

Like, say, Terry Gilliam movies.

Scott: You mentioned that Mirror was intellectual earlier, but do you find yourself forced to think about it and talk about it in a way that recognizes its depth?

Landon: I agree with your initial comment that Mirror is probably best watched in a way that lets it wash over you – like an overflow of memories or a dream. That said, I think Tarkovsky was attempting that effect, but couldn’t approach it that way himself. There’s something really deliberate in his process here. These simply aren’t juxtapositions at random. I can hardly make sense of all of them myself, but I think a lucid attempt at representing a not-at-all lucid experience is an incredible feat.

Especially given the mechanics and concrete, often literal process of filmmaking itself.

Scott: It was impressive because there are few films that demand a kind of intellectual reverence, but this was one of them for me. I don’t really feel compelled to talk about Vertigo or Kane or Tokyo Story in lofty ways. We can spend days and forests worth of paper discussing how excellent they are and why.

Landon: Entire text messages even!

Scott: But Mirror just feels like you have to talk about it intelligently or risk missing a far larger point. And it does that without feeling bathed in pretense. It’s the most self-indulgent concept possible, but the execution doesn’t languish in it.

Landon: That’s a good point. Pretense is an attack leveled far too easily at cerebral art cinema, but this movie avoids that accusation by being so transparent in its intents and justification, while incredibly complex in its style. This type of film seems to mandate the approach Tarkovsky takes.

Scott: And because – and I’m basing this on the photography and dialogue especially – it plays pretty much by the rules except for its plotlessness.

Landon: It’s a difficult film to excavate on a micro level, but besides the fact that the pace might turn some off, it’s hard to call Mirror a challenging one. It doesn’t require that you analyze it deeply, but asks you to move along with it.

It also seems like it would reward multiple viewings between long stretches of time.

Scott: It’s really hard to explain. Or maybe I’m just not good enough to do it. But it doesn’t ask that you analyze it…while making you feel that you’ve just seen something important. That’s incredibly hard to do.

Landon: And Tarkovsky doesn’t even turn to the camera and the end and say “See? It was ME the whole time!”

Scott: Which would have taken it from four stars to five.

There’s one last point I want to make there. That it doesn’t matter if you know that it’s autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. That the movie feels intrinsically like someone’s memories — regardless of whose they are.

Landon: Good point. I think that in my case, knowledge of it as a semi-autobiography hindered my ability to be emotionally involved. Its placement on this list is interesting because there are several references to Andrei Rublev (which comes later) within Mirror – the poster on the wall, the incredible newsreel footage of the men riding balloons. I felt so much like I was looking through Tarkovsky’s eyes, not simply someone’s eyes. So this is the rare semi-autobiopic that would be a good place to begin with a filmmaker.

Scott: And if you’re not a Tarkovsky nerd, the interpretation can be a bit more open.

Landon: Well, I think the main point that’s made clear is that mid-20th century Russia was a pretty wonderful place to live.

Scott: A true paradise, comrade. Zero problems!

But why don’t we see more structured/experimental movies like this?

Landon: That’s a good question. There is very little avant-garde on the S&S list, and Mirror was made by an arthouse filmmaker. No Un Chien Andalou, no Stan Brakhage. Maybe there’s a sense that, even if there’s not vague, mirror-level grounding, it’s not a movie.

Scott: But it’s still highly easily accessible.

Landon: Yeah, I guess the point is that avant-garde is unstructured and experimental, as opposed to something like this. But I’d like to see a day in which The Searchers has to compete with Zorns Lemma

Scott: You and you alone, Mr. Palmer.

Although they’re basically the same movie.

Landon: Clearly that’s the most important takeaway from this list so far.

Scott: And that Zorns Lemma will become far more popular when it’s released as “Frampton Comes Alive!”

But, yeah, Tarkovsky’s Mirror. It’s excellent, but I feel woefully unequipped to say much because “See it for yourself.”

Landon: It’s certainly the closest we’ve come to a Choose Your Own Adventure movie so far.

Scott: Including the incredible feeling of powerlessness.

Landon: And wife-mother confusion.

Scott: Not sure which set of Choose Your Own Adventure books you got as a kid…

Landon: They came with black plastic over the covers.

Scott: Gotcha.

Scott Beggs: Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.