Elemental Emotion

The Mirror (Tarkovsky, 1975) is a simultaneously soothing and confounding film to watch, an interesting mix. It’s an exploration of our memories and dreams, and how they’re connected by emotion instead of time, place, people or anything objectively rational. It shows us how remembering one moment of intense emotion brings to mind, instantly and without prompting, another memory which bears little or no connection to the first one, except for the powerful experience of that particular connecting emotion. Andrei Tarkovsky conveys these hidden links by objectively making no connection between concurrent scenes in his film. This apparently disjointed narrative contrasts with the pattern seeking behaviour that is inherently human and jars us into realising how much we want to see these patterns and how important our own context and experience is in shaping them.

The emotional connection between memories and dreams aren’t obvious to anyone other than the person who experiences them, yet they’re incredibly powerful. It’s a concept that’s linked to subjectivity of perception; not only do we remember individual events through the lens of our own context, but we link these events in our minds to form a narrative that is unique to each individual. Is this why Tarkovsky uses the elements of fire, water and air as repeated motifs through the film? These can be seen as raw, base elements, the fundamental building blocks of our world, physical counterparts to the raw emotions which connect our memories and dreams.


Tarkovsky layers meaning in every aspect of his film, but it’s particularly noticeable in his camerawork. Much of the camera movement seems to be point of view; moving as a person might and being addressed directly by the actors. But more than that, it’s reminiscent of a person observing their own memories or dreams. The slow push ins and pull outs, the brightening and dimming of the lights, the smooth movement of the camera all meld to create a sense of someone traversing their own dream-scape, feeling invisible and detached from it, until suddenly one of the players looks straight at them and they jolt awake:

Even in my dream I become aware that I’m only dreaming it. And the overwhelming joy is clouded by anticipation of awakening. At times something happens and I stop dreaming of the house and the pine trees of my childhood around it. Then I get depressed. And I can’t wait to see this dream in which ill be a child again and feel happy again because everything will still be ahead, everything will be possible. (Tarkovsky, 1975)

The shifting and changing of time, space and place between and within shots also references how dreams morph in a way which defies reason yet reveals subconscious thoughts. Tarkovsky plays with cinematic convention to convey this concept by subverting the audience’s expectation of shot structure and sequencing.

Using actors to portray multiple roles adds another layer of surreality to the film. It pushes the audience to find links between these characters. It reminds me of dreams in which every role is played by someone who the dreamer knows in their real, waking life, but in the dreamland these people exist as completely different characters.


Like Wings of Desire (Wenders, 1987) and La Jetée  (Marker, 1962) Tarkovsky seems to be making a point about war, and the Second World War in particular. His use of archive footage makes us question whether the images that we’re presented with are documentary footage of the war, or fictional footage shot by Tarkovsky. Is he making a point about perception and how reality is no less subjective than an audience’s interpretation of a film? Is his linking the mis-remembering of the protagonist to the collective mis-remembering of war?


Another link to Wings of Desire lies in the way that The Mirror represents the last thoughts of a dying man. Writing about Wenders’ film, I felt that the experiences and events calmly chanted by the man dying after a car accident seem to represent the moment when your life flashes before your eyes and you see all of the moments that really mattered, the ones that made your life yours. The Mirror may be an extended meditation on this; how we only discover what truly mattered in our life at the moment we lose it. 


Marker, C. (1962) La Jetée, Argos Films

Tarkovsky, A., (1975) The Mirror, Mosfilm

Wenders, W. (1987) Wings of Desire, Road Movies Filmproduktion


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