I love movies about dreams. Whether it’s the surrealistic Salvador Dali sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, or the memory-fantasies of Alice Liddell in Gavin Millar’s Dreamchild, or the entire filmography of David Lynch, I love a good bit of unsettling and visually stunning dream cinema. Better still are the films that remind me of my own dreams, those films that somehow reach back into my own subconscious, pluck out the memories, and fit them to the screen. Perhaps that’s why I was so disappointed with Christopher Nolan’s Inception: His logic-puzzle presentation of dreams was completely at odds with my own dream experiences. And yet, even some of my favorite dream movies never quite capture what it’s actually like to dream.
That is why, for me, Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror is the pinnacle of dream movies. Part dream, part remembrance (and even part newsreel), The Mirror is a stream of consciousness movie-poem that eschews traditional narrative storytelling in order to recreate the experience of dreaming and remembrance.
The main character – a man named Alexei – is never seen on-screen as an adult; only his voice is heard off-screen. When we do see Alexei, he’s a boy growing up in World War II-era Soviet Russia (played by actor Ignat Daniltsev). Yet this same young actor also plays Alexei’s son in the present day sequences — further disorienting and confounding our understanding of time and identity in the film. Tarkovsky does the same for the central female roles of the film, having actress Margarita Terekhova play both Alexei’s mother as a young woman and Alexei’s ex-wife in the present day. By using the same actor – the same face – for two different characters, Tarkovsky is able to tap directly into the subjectivity and supra-rationality of memory and dream. Is this not the very quality of a dream, where we “know” the person in our dream is our mother or our best friend or our brother and yet the face is of someone else?
This is why I can watch The Mirror, even though I did not grow up in the Soviet Union nor live through World War II, and somehow feel as if I’m looking at my own childhood memories and looking into my own dreams. The experience of dream and memory is so perfectly realized in the film that it immediately sends our thoughts hurling back in time to remember our own past experiences, transmuting the images of Tarkovsky’s dreams into our own. The elemental, eternal images – fire, water, wind, the flight of birds, seasons, doorways, mirrors – are so basic that they can’t help but inspire deeply personal reflections on the part of the viewer. I’m reminded of my own fear of fire, of the nightmares I used to have as a child of my room on fire and the walls flaking into ash. The wind through the grass – done in haunting, poetic slow motion in the film – reminds me of so many youthful summers spent at my grandmother’s house.
Tarkovsky manages this filmic alchemy because he lets his shots linger. He moves the camera rather than make a cut. He holds the shot on a face or a doorway, zooming in with almost imperceptible calm, so that we must contemplate the image. He prolongs our gaze until the image we see is no longer just a barn on fire or a woman levitating like a ghostly white balloon or 12-year-old Alexei staring at his reflection in the mirror – we see instead a reflection of our own dream images, our own thoughts and memories. Tarkovsky refuses to relieve the tension of these shots with a cut. We become like young Alexei, staring into the mirror, forced to look and see beyond the immediate image into the inexhaustible image of eternity.
Tarkovsky’s personal dreams and memories will never be our own, and The Mirror is nothing if not highly personal to Tarkovsky. Each person dreams differently of course; each person remembers his or her own unique memories and no one else’s. And yet inexplicably — like that mysterious face in our dreams that we somehow know is our mother — we recognize something of ourselves in Tarkovsky’s images. He holds these images up for us to gaze at and the reflection we see is our own.
Jennifer Baldwin is a freelance writer and teacher living in metro Detroit. She is a contributor at Libertas Film Magazine and writes about classic movies and culture at her own blog, Dereliction Row.