“A poet must stir the soul, not nurture idolaters” in ‘Mirror’ by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975, at 1hr 12mins

Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975. At appr. 1 hr 12 mins. The quote reads: “A poet must stir the soul, not nurture idolaters.”

The complete film is available to watch on YouTube (at the time of this writing). One can press the “CC” button at the bottom of the viewing window in order to display English captions. The screenshots featured here all come from this YouTube copy: that’s because it features the exact same subtitles as in the 35 mm copy I saw. As of October 2012, the only Blu-ray edition available on the market is a Russian one without English subtitles.

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Tarkovsky’s Mirror is about many things. In his book Sculpting in Time the Russian filmmaker wrote:

Anyone who wants can look at my films as into a mirror, in which he will see himself. When the conception of a film is given forms that are life-like, and the concentration is on its affective function rather than on the intellectual formulae of poetic cinema (where the aim is manifestly to provide a vessel for ideas) then it is possible for the audience to relate to that conception in the light of individual experience. (tr. by Kitty Hunter-Blair, Austin: University of Texas Press, [1986]1987, Second Edition, p. 184)

Two main themes nonetheless seem to dominate the story when I last saw it. First, the scattered memories, which are at times enchanted and at times dreadful. Second, the painful gap that exists between a man and a woman: each time they make an effort to cross it, it seems to grow wider and wider.

Again, in Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky explains how memories work as some sort of artistic reconstruction:

Generally people’s memories arc precious to them. It is no accident that they are coloured by poetry. The most beautiful memories are those of childhood. Of course memory has to be worked upon before it can become the basis of an artistic reconstruction of the past; and here it is important not to lose the particular emotional atmosphere without which a memory evoked in every detail merely gives rise to a bitter feeling of disappointment. There’s an enormous difference, after all, between the way you remember the house in which you were born and which you haven’t seen for years, and the actual sight of the house after a prolonged absence. Usually the poetry of the memory is destroyed by confrontation with its origin. (Ibid., p. 29)

He wrote something quite similar in the original script for the film:

The fragile joy we had felt on returning slowly ebbs from our hearts, like the blood of one mortally wounded; leaving a bitter anguished emptiness […] You should never return to ruins, whether it be a town, the house where you were born, or someone you have separated from. (quoted in Mirror: The Film Companion by Natasha Synessios, London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2001, p. 110)

This idea of memories as constructed representations that do not, however, stand for anything real is at the heart of the melancholic disposition (see previously here: memories as phantasms in relation to Angelopoulos’s film The Beekeeper).

In his book The Poetics of Space (originally La Poétique de l’Espace, 1958) Gaston Bachelard also wrote about the fleeing quality of memories and, consequently, about the difficulty one has to communicate what they are to others. Except maybe through artistic expression:

We can perhaps tell everything about the present, but about the past! The first, the oneirically definitive house, must retain its shadows. For it belongs to the literature of depth, that is, to poetry, and not to the fluent type of literature that, in order to analyze intimacy, needs other people’s stories. All I ought to say about my childhood home is just barely enough to place me, myself, in an oneiric situation, to set me on the threshold of a day-dream in which I shall find repose in the past. Then I may hope that my page will possess a sonority that will ring true―a voice so remote within me, that it will be the voice we all hear when we listen as far back as memory reaches, on the very limits of memory, beyond memory perhaps, in the field of the immemorial. All we communicate to others is an orientation toward what is secret without ever being able to tell the secret objectively. (tr. by Maris Jolas, Beacon Press, 1994, p. 13)

Perhaps this could explain how, although the characters seem to experience some problems with the way they relate to each other, Tarkovsky as an artist is able to “stir the soul” of the viewers.

“You and I could never communicate” in ‘Mirror’ by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975, at 33mins.

In her Film Companion book to Mirror, Natasha Synessios shared a similar view:

It is a paradox that Mirror, a film which confirm the deep and unbreakable ties between people, between generations, between the personal and the political, between ourselves and the world, is essentially a film about people who fail to communicate, who have failed to communicate. All the characters share that plight―they are tongue-tied, they stutter; overwhelmed by emotion they speak in quotes, obliquely; disheartened, they take flight. Yet, through sheer will, talent, faith and the miraculous transformation of art, the film achieve what Tarkovsky always strove for: “In one form or another all my films have made the point that people are not alone and abandonned in an empty universe, but are linked by countless threads with the past and the future; that as each person lives his life he forges a bond with the whole world, indeed with the whole history of mankind.” (Mirror. The Film Companion, p. 110)

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Related: “His pasts await him” (The Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, 1972)


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