<i>The Mirror:</i> Defamiliarizing Filmic Forms of Time, Space, and Character

The Mirror: Defamiliarizing Filmic Forms of Time, Space, and Character


Andrei Tarkovsky might be the greatest filmmaker of all time. The Russian writer-director broke the conventional rules of cinema a thousand times over, using the technical means of film form to present unconventional dramatic structures which favored emotion over narrative. Having made seven feature films, each of which can be described as masterpieces, it would seem that Tarkovsky’s oeuvre is ripe for analysis and interpretation. However, Tarkovsky himself repeatedly expressed annoyance with critics and analysts who feel obliged to interpret his films.

“Of late I have frequently found myself addressing audiences and have noticed that whenever I declare that there are no symbols or metaphors in my films, those present express incredulity. I am therefore puzzled when I am told that people cannot simply enjoy watching nature, when it is lovingly reproduced on the screen but have to look for some hidden meaning which they feel it must contain.” —Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986

And yet, almost the entirety of the current literature on Tarkovsky (at least that available in English) emphasizes exegesis of symbolic meaning. The extant books and essays vary widely in sophistication, but most rely heavily on a manner of auteur criticism devoted primarily to the creative interpretation of his films. What are we to make of this inconsistency between the filmmaker and the literature? Perhaps Tarkovsky is being disingenuous. It is, after all, quite difficult not to search for metaphorical motivations behind the renowned sequences of his masterful filmography. The innovative processes of his films prescribe a difficulty in viewing them in any way apart from trying to interpret the imagery; they are hard movies to follow. However, this is because we walk into them the wrong way, expecting a narrative with the cinematic cues that we’re used to. Tarkovsky’s narration is instead based paradoxically upon the stream of consciousness technique, with the use of reality, dreams, visions, memories, literary fragments and pictures in a manner as natural as a person’s thoughts. He need not invent any dramaturgical device to change the time of action or to shift from black-and-white to color.

Therefore, I think that making an effort to explore more the formal qualities of his work—how the filmmaking and storytelling choices affect us—is a more acceptable task than to search for symbolic meaning behind the diegetic elements (i.e. the imagery within the world of the film). This is a region of meaning with possible cross-cultural effects, one that may illuminate patterns of narration which themselves contribute to the high demands which these films place on their audiences. To this end, I have chosen to examine the narrational strategies of one of Tarkovsky’s more complex films—and one of my personal favorite films—The Mirror (1974).

The Mirror incorporates a number of defamiliarizing devices found in Tarkovsky’s previous films and employs them with staggering frequency. It is, in this sense, the culmination of his previous tendencies toward roughened form in the presentation of diegetic time, space, and character. On a fundamental level, the film’s difficulty is centered around the fact that it is, at best, semi-narrative. Attempts at plot synopses of The Mirror are typically uninformative and banal; certainly, a synopsis could be significantly fleshed out, but even then, it would not begin to describe the perceived greatness of the work. A very large aspect of The Mirror’s artfulness is a result of narrative play. The film’s story is so hard to gloss because there is no causal chain of action: there exists no clear interlocking motives between different time frames. To a certain degree it can be described as episodic, yet we do not even have the concrete temporal cues and chronological ordering.

For the viewer, story construction is a task of forming and then either confirming or rejecting hypotheses based on the observation of plot information. The Mirror offers few confirmations, but it illustrates that aspect of Tarkovsky’s work that viewers find so difficult to negotiate: the fracturing of classical norms of diegetic time, space, and character, particularly by way of the elimination of connective cues between shots, scenes, and episodes. It is in The Mirror that these techniques come into full flower. To say that reality, dream, and memory are interlaced in this film is a radical understatement. It is routinely the case that the viewer is provided with only scant information for determining one from another, by way of the defamiliarization of time, location, and character.  

  1. Temporal Defamiliarization

We can first examine how Tarkovsky sculpts a rougher sense of time in this film. Temporal relations in a story are typically derived by inference: we fit the schemata to the cues given by the narration. The Mirror has no linear development, no goal or climax, no protagonist’s dilemma (except maybe in the most ill-defined existential sense, but that would presume that we can identify a protagonist, which the film also eschews). Without objective purpose, the film’s plot is free to jump about in story time, often depriving the viewer of cues and clues to temporal shifts.

Plot moments in this movie take place in at least three basic time frames, the dates of which we can only determine contextually. After the prologue, the early scenes in the film are relatively communicative about time, unlike the more abstract intrinsic norm that develops as the film goes on. Yet even here, temporal clues are usually proffered after the fact. In the first scene, a woman sits on a fence outside a country home. A passerby asking for directions has a brief conversation with the woman. When he leaves, she ushers two children inside the house. In the evening, as they are eating supper, another woman runs in to tell them that the barn is burning. The chronological placement of this scene is not denoted within the scene itself. No dialogue, no title, not even the narrator (who speaks in cryptic poetics rather than exposition) grants the viewer knowledge of the year or general period; and the setting and clothing are sufficiently generic that the sequence could take place anytime between 1930 and the present. Therefore, the viewer is faced with a significant gap. Establishing the scenario of time and place is one of the primary functions of early scenes in classical cinema. But, unlike the situation with the stutterer, this gap (when does the burning of the barn occur?) will be specifically resolved if the viewer is attentive and patient.

After the scene of the burning barn comes the first dream. It can be recognized as such because it is accompanied by several conventional “dream” cues. The image shifts from color to black-and-white; the dream is shot in slow motion; sound is muted, with Eduard Artemyev’s atonal non-diegetic music taking over. Taken in and of themselves, these cues could not be considered absolute. Any viewer who has previous knowledge of Solaris (1972) or Tarkovsky’s later work will be on guard about reading the color/black-and-white transition too concretely. They will be aware that Tarkovsky’s mixed use of color and black-and-white stock sometimes seems to have no compositional motivation. Slow motion is not by itself indicative of a dream. Tarkovsky uses slow motion frequently, and classical cinema employs it with surprising regularity, usually to emphasize the grace of a motion or to stress the culmination of suspenseful conflict. Muffled sound is not uncommon in the representation of a subjective mental state in the attached character. And as for atonal music, it has become something of a cliché in the horror and science fiction genres. But taken together these cues incline one toward hypothesizing a dream. Like the piling up of evidence in a trial, no one item is enough, but a critical mass moves beyond coincidence. Nevertheless, the viewer need not be convinced yet. A smoking gun awaits.

In the dream, one of the children seen earlier walks out of his bedroom and into a large room of neoclassical design, clearly not part of the cottage he was just in. A man helps a woman wash her hair. Her wet hair obscures her face, but as she strokes it back, we see she is the mother from the earlier scene. Water and debris fall from the ceiling. The woman walks toward a mirror and sees a much older face staring back at her (the surreality of the imagery bolsters the dream hypothesis). Many of the gaps of establishment left open in these first two scenes are answered in what follows: color returns, and a long, slow tracking shot moves through an apartment with interior architecture matching that in the dream.

During the shot, we are privy to a telephone conversation between the as-yet-unnamed Aleksei (Innokenty Smoktunovsky) and his mother (Margarita Terekhova). Aleksei is never shown, though his voice is clearly adult. He asks what year the barn burned. “1935,” she tells him, “the same year as your father left.” Aleksei then tells her that he had a dream about her when she was younger. In this simple conversation a few important gaps are filled. We know that the first scene takes place in 1935, that the woman is Aleksei’s mother, that what we had suspected to be a dream was in fact such. It also adds a new question: is the man in the dream the missing father? After the telephone conversation—and a switch back to black-and-white—the mother is shown running through a print shop in a panic over a possible misprint in a book she has been editing. Her presence is enough to place the plot back in, at least roughly, 1935. A poster of Stalin on the wall reinforces that shift. We also learn the woman’s name, Marusya. This is more a question of the establishment of character, but it will be important to the temporal quandary that immediately follows. After the scene in the print shop, another cut leads from Marusya in the company showers to, seemingly, her sitting calmly at a table. She is having a conversation with an unseen man, whose voice is recognizable as the adult Aleksei.

One would be forgiven for taking the incongruity of the scene (i.e., how could the adult Aleksei be speaking to his mother as a young woman?) as a cue for another dream. But no other cues create the critical mass accompanying the first dream. Aleksei calls the woman “Natalia,” and from their conversation we can gather that they are a divorced couple discussing the best home for their son. We realize now that Tarkovsky uses the same actress (Terekhova) to play two different characters in two different time frames (Aleksei’s mother, Marusya, in the past and Aleksei’s wife, Natalia, in the present). We will explore this issue in more depth when we return to the question of characterization; but for now, the ramifications of such a device for the viewer’s negotiation of temporal shifts in the plot should be clear. Temporal shifts involving Marusya and/or Natalia, already occurring with a paucity of reliable cues, will require an additional computation on the part of the viewer. Whereas the mere existence of certain characters in a frame usually becomes an automatic cue in other films with radically disparate temporal shifts, The Mirror roughens the form of those transitions by making the recognition of two primary characters significantly more difficult than if two different actresses had played the roles. For the remainder of the film, any time Terekhova appears on screen, the viewer must hunt for other cues regarding the setting in time. Soon after the appearance of Natalia, Tarkovsky repeats the device to similar effect, introducing the character of Ignat. Ignat is Aleksei’s son and is played by the same actor who plays Aleksei as a teenager (Ignat Daniltsev). Again, notice that the device of casting the same actors in these two roles creates parent/child parallels that fairly beg to be interpreted symbolically.

The Mirror’s plot shifts so frequently in time, in some instances even for very brief single shots, that the spectator is constantly searching for cues as to the temporal settings of individual scenes. At times the deduction is made easy by spatial indicators. More often, a deficit of cues leaves the viewer uncertain, at least for a brief span, about the location in time of an individual scene. The final scene of the movie capitalizes on the intrinsic norm of open temporal play found throughout by cutting together disparate plot elements as if they constituted a single scene. Marusya and her husband lay in an open field. From the context of their conversation, we can gather that she is pregnant with their first child. So in our mental rearrangement of plot events, this scene comes first. Marusya is childless and still living happily with her husband. Cut to young Aleksei and his sister being brought out of the cottage by their grandmother, who leads them on a walk into the field. The two situations (Marusya and her husband, Aleksei and his grandmother) are temporally incongruent: they could not, by necessity, exist side by side. And yet, through a series of eyeline matches, Tarkovsky cuts the two narrative lines together as if they are occurring in the same time and place (similar to the famous montage sequence from The Graduate [1967], which achieves its effects by applying the tools and rules of continuity to non-continuous times and locations.) The delineation of time frames, so shaky from the beginning, has, at film’s end, completely collapsed.

  1. Spatial Defamiliarization

In The Mirror, the perception of space, or more specifically location, is roughened in concert with the roughened form of time. The film contains two principal settings and at least four secondary settings. The principals are the Aleksei’s childhood cottage and his adulthood house. Secondary settings include the print shop, Natalia’s house, another cottage, and a military school. Each of these locations must be somehow established for their inclusion in the viewer’s story-building. The principal practice of the classical cinema regarding the establishment of new locations is to begin with long shots that clearly delineate spatial relationships between elements in the setting and then gradually move in for closer views, allowing the viewer to construct a map of the area of action. To a certain degree, Tarkovsky grants the viewer this luxury, but he then works to undercut spatial knowledge through invisible transitions between settings.

After the prologue, the first scene at the cottage is relatively generous in allowing the spectator a variety of positions and shot sizes from which to view this important plot space. However, the first dream sequence startles through its inclusion of what we will come to recognize as Aleksei’s adulthood home in Moscow. In the dream, young Aleksei wakes up and looks out the window. He then walks out of the room and around a corner. These few shots allow us to establish the location as the childhood cottage. He opens the door to another room (match-on-action cut), but here the interior architecture is completely different. Chunks of plaster fall from the high ceiling in a room trimmed with neoclassical detail. By this point, spectators have probably assimilated enough of the cues discussed earlier to understand that they a viewing a dream. But if not, there is little mistaking the impossibility of the room Aleksei enters. It is through the juxtaposition of the two sites that the dream reveals its most deliberate cue.

The next scene is of the telephone conversation between the adult Aleksei and his mother. This single-shot scene is constituted of a slow track down the length of the inside of Aleksei’s house. In a sense, the track is a sort of substitute for the successively closer synoptic views found in the classical film. The track allows the viewer gradually to assimilate information about the relationships of objects in diegetic space, creating a cognitive map of that space to which action must conform. Any action not conforming to the existing map creates a rupture that must somehow be explained, either through a revision of the map or through determining the motivation of the rupture. This is why the juxtaposition between the cottage and the house that occurs in the dream sequence is so startling. Without any reasonable recourse to revising the existing map of the cottage, the viewer searches for some compositional motivation for the spatial rupture. When combined with the cues already at work, seeing the sequence as a dream is the most salient explanation.

As the film develops, Tarkovsky will play on the interrelation of these two locations to emphasize Aleksei’s connection to both. In a later scene, Aleksei and Natalia are arguing in Aleksei’s house. Aleksei mentions that he has been thinking about his childhood lately. As he talks, Natalia looks out the window. In an apparent eyeline match, we witness young Aleksei and his sister playing outside the cottage. Of course, the shots of the children playing constitute flashbacks, but Tarkovsky manipulates the continuity convention of the eyeline match to create momentary confusion on the part of the spectator. As was already discussed, Tarkovsky uses a similar device at the end of the film. In that instance, there is no shift in space, only in time, making the transition even more difficult to negotiate. Spatial irregularities are visible, but temporal irregularities are invisible and elusive.

  1. Character Defamiliarization

The devices resulting in the defamiliarization of time and space rely heavily on the primacy effect, whereby the characteristics associated with something in a narrative (a character, a place, etc.) at the time of its introduction will continue to hold sway until significant evidence accumulates to revise that assumption. Surprise endings and twists in popular films heavily rely on the overthrow of a primacy characteristic. Primacy also reflects on our negotiation of diegetic time and space, so that uncued transitions between different locations cause momentary confusion, especially if those transitions are accompanied by devices (e.g., eyeline matches) which are, in classical narration, intrinsic to a single scene. Character primacy, then, points to the power of characters’ personal traits, both physical and emotional. Tarkovsky defamiliarizes his characterizations in The Mirror by having a single actor play more than one character. Classical films would only allow such a device when realistically motivated (like the portrayal of twins).

Margarita Terekhova plays both Aleksei’s mother, Marusya, and his estranged wife, Natalia. Meanwhile, Tarkovsky also has Ignat Daniltsev playing both Aleksei as a young man and Aleksei’s son, Ignat. Given that these four characters appear on screen more than any others, the ramifications for such casting are complex. Generally speaking, however, we can see throughout the film that the single actor/multiple characters device contributes to the previously discussed dislocation of time and space to further roughen the form of the narrative. It presents to the spectator yet another obstacle in determining the diegetic location of the film’s episodes. Luckily for the viewer, the potential for the device is not carried to its possible extremes. Every time that Marusya, Natalia, Aleksei, or Ignat are on screen, the proper identity is eventually supplied, usually through dialogue, but sometimes through nonverbal cues. However, several scenes go on for tens of seconds before the time/space/character relationships are fully established. Tens of seconds may not seem too long a time, but compared to the classical norm (nearly instantaneous establishment), it is an uncomfortable period of uncertainty, especially when repeated numerous times.

It is not uncommon for the classical film to break up time in a number of ways, but one may usually rely on the presence of certain physical objects or characters to provide cues as to the temporal shifts. Tarkovsky, by limiting information about the characters on screen and the spaces they inhabit, keeps us asking questions about what exactly we are seeing at any one time. The general compositional logic of the defamiliarization tactics at work in The Mirror ascribe the following guiding motif to the polysemic film: Tarkovsky’s fractured narrative (together with the hint of the film’s title) is structured so as to point out the parallels between the life Aleksei was forced to live as a child and the life he has chosen to live as an adult. Furthermore, Aleksei tells Natalia that every time he imagines his mother as she was in his youth, he sees her with Natalia’s face. As a result of this delayed decoding, we are forced to question the narrative objectivity of the episodes set in the past, as if they are all, to a certain degree, Aleksei’s dreams. Thus, missing cues in spatiotemporal transitions, together with the unifying quality of the single actor/multiple characters device, forces the viewer to consider past and present in strict comparison to each other.

In this way, The Mirror is a spectacular example of how the form-content dichotomy of cinema so easily breaks down. This is a film in which one can clearly see the reliance of the film’s content on the film’s form itself and vice versa. The two are interwoven and cannot be separated.

Image Credits: Flickr

About Author

Eman Rahman is an Associate Editor who drinks five glasses of milk a day. However, if you offer him almond milk or soy milk, he'll probably mount a campaign to protest your flawed perspective on calcium consumption.

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