Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Ruscico DVD
The films of Andrei Tarkovsky do not inspire a great deal of critical appraisal in print. This is not to say that nothing has been written about his films (there is at least one full-length book on the subject available in English), but rather to point out that his films seem to provoke emotional reactions and not the type of intellectual responses that make up much of the criticism on Antonioni or Hitchcock. Tarkovsky’s films seem much more free-floating than controlled, less schematic than intuitive. For this reason, Tarkovsky’s imagery and metaphors may be said to have the characteristics of a dream — they are so deeply personal that they seem to transcend reasoning and language. To the viewer they are simply, utterly, and indescribably beautiful.
This non-linguistic quality is certainly represented in Tarkovsky’s protagonists: sullen, taciturn men, daydreamers haunted by the past or by their own unspecified longing. Like the thoughtful, nearly catatonic poet of Nostalghia, or the quietly tortured Andrei Rublev (who has taken a vow of silence by the end of the eponymous film), these men communicate not predominantly to other characters, but rather to the audience with images, dreams and memories projected directly from their consciousness onto celluloid. In Solaris, this interest in the protagonist’s fantasies (rather than his communication with other characters) takes on its most literal form, as figures from the hero’s past are resurrected, not merely in memory, but in the flesh.
A transitional film for Tarkovsky, Solaris does not quite eschew conventional narrative (as does Mirror), but it does follow the stream of its hero’s consciousness. It is clear that Tarkovsky is less interested in Kris Kelvin’s mission — to determine whether or not scientific research should continue on the ocean planet Solaris — than he is in the protagonist’s demons. The principal demon in question is Kelvin’s deceased wife, Hari, but from the start of the film, as we watch the lumbering, yet sensitive Donatas Banionis stroll around his father’s home, Kris emerges as a patient, ponderous figure. On subsequent viewings, we can infer much of the character’s thoughts during this prolonged opening sequence: his anticipation of leaving the warmth of Earth for the coldness of space; leaving his father, who may be dead by the time he returns; and his memories of his wife and his mother. It is only later, as Kelvin’s thoughts find physical incarnations on Solaris, that we learn the nature of his opaque troubles. Tarkovsky’s principle challenge here is to communicate the thoughts of a character that outwardly communicates nothing. Unlike Ingmar Bergman, whose work in theatre and radio has made him adept at dramatizing the internal struggles of his characters, Tarkovsky (from Solaris onward) seeks to convey such struggle almost entirely through imagery.
It is fitting, then, that the larger theme of Solaris is communication itself, particularly the failure of communication between people. This is evident from the beginning in Kelvin’s social reticence — he tries to run away from Berton, and his father insists that “We must talk” before Kris leaves, revealing that there has been much left unsaid between the father and son. Ten years before, a breakdown in communication between Kris and Hari seems to have precipitated her suicide. Similarly, the reason for the scientific research of Solaris is the theory that the ocean is itself “a giant brain … capable of rational thought.” The scientists are trying to communicate with it, to “stretch [to it] a thread of understanding.” As Snaut speculates, the ocean is “probing our brains, and drawing out something like little islands of memory… What if this is the long-awaited contact, eh?” Even the replicas of Hari that the ocean creates present an opportunity for Kelvin to communicate, to interact with his own memory and his conscience.
Whatever the ocean Solaris tries to communicate to Kelvin and the scientists (and whatever the film Solaris communicates to its viewers), it does so through images. Hari, in her many resurrected forms, is still a facsimile, a manifestation of Kelvin’s memories of her, right down to the shawl, the dress, and the mark of a hypodermic needle in her arm. Solaris’ “visitors” are very much like the film image itself, continually resurrecting memories, always bringing the past back to life. This occurs for Kris’ mother, for example, as he watches his home movies, for Gibaryan as well, in his filmed letter to Kris, and for Berton’s younger, handsomer self in the film he shows to Kelvin. Cinema, like the replica of Hari, is an incarnation of the past, a prolonged flashback. It is memory made flesh. And Hari’s struggle to be human, and not merely an empty copy of a dead person, is analogous to Tarkovsky’s own struggle to create a film image with life and meaning of its own. Just as Hari seeks a life and consciousness independent of Kris’ memory, Tarkovsky’s images seek meaning independent of narrative and dialogue.
However, the film’s ending is ambiguous, and communication remains elusive for its characters. Even after Hari sacrifices herself for his peace of mind, Kris decides to stay on Solaris. “The only thing left for me,” he decides, “is to wait [for] a new miracle.” The last images of the film show Kris reconciled with his father at his father’s home. But this is also a replica — a literal “island of memory,” to borrow Snaut’s phrase. Whatever “new miracle” Kris awaits, he awaits in isolation, in his own enclosed realm of memory and desire.
If Tarkovsky’s conclusion seems a little grim, it may be a small comfort to remember that moviegoing is itself a fairly solitary experience. Sitting in the dark, alone, amongst strangers, we for the most part are individually affected, especially when confronted by a film as deeply personal as one by Tarkovsky. And perhaps this isolation is what we look for in a film — not escapism, but intense self-examination. As Snaut says of space exploration, “We don’t want any more worlds. Only a mirror to see our own in.”