THIRD DIVE INTO THE OCEAN: ANDREI TARKOVSKY’S ‘THE STALKER’ – Positif review

2017-12-08T11:04:12-08:00 December 8th, 2017|Categories: CINEMA|Tags: , , , , |
  • Stalker (1979) by Andrei Tarkovsky

by Emmanuel Carrère

The thaw in the Soviet Union made it possible for new filmmakers, although not without difficulty, to assert their personal vision. The most striking of these was indisputably Andrei Tarkovsky, Emmanuel Carrère, an early devotee of fantasy films and the future famous writer of La Moustache and two novels adapted for the cinema—Claude Miller’s Classe de neige and Nicole Garcia’s L’Adversaire—discusses the grandeur of Stalker.

Some works, not just because they are successful, but because of their prominence, enormity, and exhaustiveness, lead us to question and cause us concern. What can a filmmaker possibly do next after such a major accomplishment? What task, under the circumstances, can avoid appearing trivial?
This was the position in which Francis Ford Coppola found himself after Apocalypse Now. Or Stanley Kubrick after every one of his films since 2001; Alain Resnais after Providence; Andrei Tarkovsky after Solaris and The Mirror.
These four examples are all I need. In addition to avoiding any major omissions, they include everything that has been great and definitive in the cinema in recent years, and they also have something else in common. They are, in the true sense of the word, avant-garde works whose craft, however (more than their budget), keeps us from labeling them experimental cinema.
What to do now? These four filmmakers must certainly have asked themselves that question. And their solution, unless they were prepared to stop shooting, was to work on what they felt was as remote and different as possible from the film just completed. How could the new work, when compared with those that came before, fail to make the differences obvious and restore inevitable unity to the work of a great creator? But events happened as if a frenzied search for the antithesis were an indispensable springboard for the artist to continue. After Barry Lyndon, Kubrick made a contemporary and limited horror film. Coppola, it would appear, will follow up the atrocities of war as shown in Apocalypse Now, and its sumptuous over-production values typical of Hollywood, with the refinement of One from the Heart and the apparent modesty of a project conceived along the lines of young German cinema. After the overwhelming confidence of Providence, Resnais follows an Anglo-Saxon elegy with the hilarious and dry scherzo of Mon Oncle d’Amérique, a film whose spirit is entirely French (as we say of Rameau’s or Ravel’s music) even to the point, according to the director, of being “frenchouillard.”1
I have saved Tarkovsky for the end. First of all because it is about his film that 1 am writing today. Secondly, because he proves that everything I have just said is false. These introductory remarks, whose purpose was primarily to place him on the same pedestal as these other better-known artists, and to state at the very outset that he is one of the four or five greatest filmmakers now working, do not apply to him. With only his second film, he appears to me to have reached a level of majesty in terms of flow that only Kubrick has been able to achieve in the past fifteen years. Andrei Rublev, Solaris, The Mirror, and Stalker are four units, each of which appears to be a world unto itself, a universe which can barely be imagined as being part of a whole, and can only be compared to Kubrick’s 2001A Clockwork OrangeBarry Lyndon trilogy. Each of these total, self-sufficient, and proudly unique works is nevertheless part of a trajectory of staggering scale and determination. Far from being one of those masterpieces, in the sense of craftsmanship, that are recapitulations, visits to an itinerary that goes in a circle (like Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha), each is a new experience, each conquers territory that is completely new to the director (although there were clear signs in the previous films showing the future direction he might take) and often to cinema itself.
But whereas Kubrick’s method of working proceeds with the dialectical negations that I have mentioned, and which Michel Ciment has analyzed in detail,2 Tarkovsky’s approach keeps raising the stakes. Both artists leave us with the same impression. The immensity of what they are doing suggests a lack of living space. But Kubrick deliberately makes us think of a conqueror who, as soon as he has incorporated a region into his territory, sails to the antipodes to discover new worlds, fde strikes us as capable of indefinite expansion in space. Tarkovsky is more sedentary but is still in constant renewal. Where possible he annexes bordering countries. But, more often than not, he continues to plow the same furrow, digging and revealing strata that served as the foundations for his previous work.
What could he possibly do after Solaris? This strikes me as a legitimate question, given the casual reception given to this incredible film. What Tarkovsky did was shoot The Mirror, a very loosely constructed fabric of childhood memories that is only very superficially different from metaphysical and linear science-fiction films, and that I think it would be possible to prove stemmed wholly from Solaris, or at least was irrigated by the same underground lake (and I would not deny that I am thinking of the ocean of memories in which the mysterious planet is bathed; this is not a metaphor, and I will return to the topic later). Likewise, Solaris and The Mirror later generated Stalker.

Stalker takes place in a different kind of space, and it is one of the great merits of the film that the Zone, as it is called, has been presented convincingly. An opening title card explains the premise. A meteorite hitting the earth, a visit by extraterrestrials, a mutation attributable to some form of human carelessness? We’re not quite sure. What we know is that one day a corner of the country became different and dangerous. People disappeared, inexplicable things began to happen, noises were heard, and there was even talk of a secret room where the most intimate vows were being made and where happiness could be found in the middle of this unsettled region. This, as we said, is the Zone. It was immediately surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, and access was prohibited. Curious people, adventurers, and even some desperate people were sometimes brave enough to enter with a guide. The film recounts one of these illegal expeditions.
The opening is one of the most gripping and visionary moments I have ever seen in the cinema. Tarkovsky, who also is credited with set design, begins by imagining the universe that surrounds the Zone. Neither the country nor the date is specified. A railway landscape, with vague and muddy surroundings, barracks, darkened brick buildings with tunnels worthy of Daedalus, dead waters stagnating, and perhaps spotlights shining their pallid beams on oozing trenches: all are reminiscent of Bergman’s The Silence, of the enormous and claustrophobic building, striped in shadow and light, that Orson Welles in The Trial was inspired to use after a visit to the Care d’Orsay. But it is mainly Giambattista Piranesi’s dark imagery that is evoked by this gigantic prison, filmed in sepia with terrifying acuity. To begin with, the outside is very different from what one might expect to find inside, and the implacable architecture, with its many traps, removes any form of stability. The play of perspectives hidden in shadow, with scaffolding over cesspits and the haunting authority of windowless walls, creates a clearly interior theater whose terror appears to stem more from the nightmare of the travelers than from any reality, however threatening the latter might be.

Traveling through abandoned warehouses, dried-up canals, on foot, and in a jeep, and then in one of those cars used to travel in mine shafts, the heroes manage to outwit the police surveillance around the Zone, and to penetrate inside. Once the border has been crossed, a sooty trip ensues. The film shifts to color and the real trip begins.
We do not know the real names of the three travelers, only their nicknames. There are two customers: the writer, apparently pushed to this extreme by desperation and lack of inspiration,- and the professor, who appears to be there out of scientific curiosity. Then, of course, there is their guide, the Stalker, who approaches furtively and is familiar with the Zone, and who has derisively been nicknamed Chin-gachook by the writer, a name borrowed from James Fenimore Cooper. The Stalker is the person who, from the moment he appears, reveals the laws of “no man’s land.” They can be readily summarized: there are none. Anything can happen, and every kind of trap is possible, unless they are impossible to imagine, and all one can do is remain on guard, knowing full well that this will not be of any use. They make progress by feeling their way along.
The Zone reacts unpredictably to everything the men do and sometimes leads them to do things. This animism is not, however, systematic. The entity must not be offended, to be sure, but it is difficult to know whether one is behaving well or badly toward it, because one never can tell when the entity will send a nasty denial to someone who appears to be respecting and venerating it, and on the other hand fail to reprimand those who are not observing the empirical and deferential code muttered by the Stalker. Thus the professor, ignoring the advice of his guide, turns back (which according to the guide is a mortal sin) to recover his knapsack, in which he is hiding a bomb big enough to blow things up over an area of several kilometers. The Stalker predicts that he will never be seen again, and that the Zone will have devoured him. And yet, when he and the writer have made only slight progress and gone through trials, they find the latecomer has been able to reach the same point with only a few steps, leapfrogging along in this game in which the unknown rules include an abyss in each square, with the last square representing happiness. Even the Stalker, who is accustomed to the whims and incoherence of the monster, is surprised. But he accepts it; after all, it’s the Zone. He has nothing further to say.
The travelers’ goal is to reach the House, and then the Room. Rather than linger over an image that is both simple and brilliant at the same time, as he did in Solaris, for example—the ocean imagined by Stanislas Lem—Tarkovsky develops a series of interlocked or embedded clues around the secret. There is a sacred region (the Zone), at the heart of which is hidden a sanctuary (the House), which in turn shelters a tabernacle (the Room). This level of burying is more conducive to an initiatory trip than immediate revelation, because what is involved here is truly burying. The quest is directed toward the depths. While it may have to tolerate nature while crossing the Zone, Stalker is no less an inner film (insofar, however, as Piranesi’s Prisons are interiors: without any limits ever allowing us to state that they are. The very idea of a vault under which these vertiginous vaults rise, or a wall capable of enclosing the exponential proliferation of such walls, or of an ultimate higher or lower level, the very idea of a fence, is imperiously combated). Once in the House (How did they get there? They never went through a door and there was no continuity to signal the idea of entering inside), the travelers will only episodically see the light of day, and they find themselves caught up in a capricious topography that is incomprehensible and not Euclidean. The Stalker warned them: the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line here, and even if it were, there is no such thing as a straight line. We would otherwise have trouble understanding how a house could possibly contain the route they travel, and the audience needs to treat it instead as an imagined trip to the center of the earth. This too allows Tarkovsky to place himself in his element. A Bachelardian analysis of his work would be appropriate. Since Andrei Rublev, he has been turning away from the sky and the air. Fire, here, appears to have been introduced only for the purpose of initiation. On the other hand, we ardently plunge into the bowels of the earth, where the flow of water varies from cascades to swamp. This arduous progress through the chthonic darkness is not, however, as we might believe, a trip through the unconscious. Or rather it is, but it is not the unconscious of men, but the unconscious of the world.
The middle part of Stalker is subterranean, then, and lacks anything that would allow us to get our bearings. Stairways, passageways, inner channels, grottoes, immense sand-covered rooms, vestibules whose windows suddenly shine with the light of day. Just when we believed we were at the far end of some cave, these heterogeneous places, which succeed one another with no apparent logic, follow the changeable laws of a universe in which one is neither going up nor down, neither right nor left. Just going. And the film’s success owes everything to Tarkovsky’s extraordinary visual power, which he applies to this topographical aberration.

Moreover, the expedition comes to a sudden end because the travelers in extremis refuse to enter the Room, and the Stalker, discouraged by their stupidity, takes them back, we are never sure how, to their point of departure. The end of the film returns us to this border point, which we left two hours earlier, at the cafe where the three were prior to the adventure, shown in sepia. Against all expectations, this demented trip does not appear to have deeply affected the two tourists. They will in all likelihood return, one to his calculations and ridiculous measuring instruments, the other to his desperately white sheet of paper—unless their visit to the forbidden land provides them with a hot story. They found neither happiness nor themselves. As for the Stalker, he is right to feel exasperated when he thinks about the two nasty men who desecrated the Zone he jealously guards. It is an initiatory voyage that initiated no one, except the one who was already there. The mystery of the Zone remains complete.

Stalker, while a brilliant film, is not without its defects, but its obvious weaknesses put us on the trail of more secret riches. This is the case for some aspects of the script and the treatment of the characters. The initiatory nature of the plot strikes me as too obviously revealed—and Solaris, in this respect, used it more satisfactorily. The protagonists undergo trials by water and fire. The Stalker never stops reminding them that it is impossible to go back, and that nothing will ever be gained from the quest they have undertaken. In particular, their respective attitudes toward the Zone, and toward happiness and the ultimate answer, promised by the Room from which they turned away after getting there, illustrate a known issue, one which we would like Tarkovsky to become obsessed with—he is not the only one—but this issue remains a prisoner of highly rhetorical oppositions.
During the first half hour, indeed until they enter the Zone, the personalities of the three travelers remain vague and indistinct, and the ease with which they can be confused appears to be deliberate. Barely visible against the haggard and torturous universe in which the sepia photography attempts to bog them down, they are mere silhouettes, with tense faces, and appear to be more the extensions of the human antennas of ambient anxiety than real individuals. We think once again of the tiny crushed figures who haunt Piranesi’s invented prisons, who climb staircases overhanging the void, wend their way around oozing columns, and thrust themselves down frail and aimless passageways without a handrail, between Herculean blocks, all created by the black frenzy of the engravers. Their crossing through the mirror is engraved with the crazy and busy precision that hallucinogens can create, in which the “ego” abdicates its despotism to become no more than a receiver, a clean plate of copper on which visions are inscribed, corroded by an acid whose nature is unknown.
But once the border has been crossed and we return to color, the self reasserts its rights, and the egos of the two tourists are pervasive and talkative. They never stop attacking the “you.” Up until the final quarter of the film, they are the stars. The Stalker remains an enigma. He guides, laments, implores, and his fearful and whining attitude is disconcerting to us, the audience, and his two fellow travelers in the same way as the Zone disconcerts us, the Zone of which he is the keeper and perhaps also the ambassador. He remains withdrawn. While following his orders, although they never hesitate to rebuff him, the writer and the professor turn against each other. Suddenly, they become responsible for incarnating two different ways of being in the world, of conceiving life, which are expressed not in terms of alternate pleadings of a case, with each defending the values he believes he represents, but through reciprocal invective. The writer attacks the professor’s scientific curiosity—his thermometers, barometers, “crapometers”—and his mania for analysis, although neither ever gives us any proof. As his reward, the professor cannot find enough contemptuous words for the nonsense or the lack of imagination he attributes to the writer, though he never displays any more wit than his opponent.
Neither of these artificially opposed Weltanschauung [world view] finds any concrete application, as if the Zone made their use obsolete. They only exist as memories of the outside world, anchored in the obsessions of the two protagonists. They are pretexts for hatred, pure intellectual constructs, deprived of any observable support in behavior, or even in each character’s comments, when he says something about himself rather than simply against his counterpart. They also resemble one another, even physically. Their latent conflict gives rise to pauses in which they taunt one other with their perception of the adversary, which each uses to define himself negatively, all under the worried eye of the Stalker, who knows full well what vanity is involved in these jousts in the Zone. These discussions, which are in the foreground throughout the central portion of the film, and which seem to summarize its purpose or intent (and then we say to ourselves: Is that all it is, simply a haven for arguments between old students, that Tarkovsky built these unbelievable sets and imagined this trip?) but they are at certain moments insidiously undermined by the images, which impose an otherwise fascinating mystery. The most curious thing is that these areas of “distraction” arise precisely when the never-ending discussions are at their most heated, as if the filmmaker, suddenly contemplative, coincided with the characters’ desire for a break to continue their discussion.
In the last part, which begins at the threshold of the room that the travelers will not enter, they squabble for a pathetically long time in a manner annoyingly evocative of an out-of-context scene from the theater of the absurd, when the figure of the Stalker suddenly moves into the foreground. The professor wants to blow up the Room and the Zone with the bomb he brought with him. We even understand him: spending time in the “Diamat” can only encourage people to behave radically against a center of obscurantism that we suspect is more or less Christian in nature. The Stalker explodes. He pleads on behalf of the Zone and the Room, which are all that he has in the world, the only hope for unfortunates like him, whom he can help by taking them here. He does not plead in any formal manner, and is not particularly good at arguing logically, like the two others, but a long and sublime monologue interspersed with tears is the focal point of the film. The Stalker moans, threatens, hits, and begs. The pathetic opposition between the writer and the professor disappears and makes way for another much more crucial form of opposition, which we immediately recognize. The innocent against the doctors, openness against intrigue and quibbles, faith against analysis.
The immense debate of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed (also called The Devils) erupts into the film, and we can clearly see the position of Tarkovsky now, the mystic, the Slavophile, the man of roots, the earth, and loam. The Zone is the last enclave of Faith, the last chance for Love, the refuge of Transcendence. As for the mercenary Stalker who takes tourists around, his bearing, his worried and awkward fervor, are now explained. This innocent blond man with a Christlike beard and blue eyes arises like an avatar of a certain Prince Myshkin [from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot] or Alyosha Karamazov [in The Brothers Karamazov]. And it is only accidental, of course, but on the other hand the writer, full of sarcasm, hatred, and despair, babbling insistently and ferociously about their derision, stooped over, twisting up his haggard and contemptuous face, with his narrow shoulders and his tramp’s overcoat, often makes me think of the fiercely malevolent Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the French incarnation of the logorrheic man in Notes from the Underground, for whose bitterness the inexhaustible Dostoyevsky took responsibility.
The visitors allow themselves to be swayed by the disarray of the Innocent. Tarkovsky skips the return trip. All he does is go back to the sepia tones used at the beginning of the film to remove us from the spell of the Zone. The protagonists separate and the admirable penultimate scene, which echoes the first, leads the Stalker home, to the edge of the Zone. He is literally suffocating from a sacred indignity and stigmatizes these men of learning as being incapable of love and faith. He has a fever—for a while, he appears to be epileptic, but that is perhaps only because we want the literary parallels to be too neat [Myshkin in The Idiot is epileptic]. His wife removes his clothing, has him lie down, and calms him. When he is asleep, she turns toward the camera and, like Bergman, speaks to us, telling us that the Stalker is, in fact, a simple soul, but gentle and good, that she loves him, that she likes being near him, and that in spite of their problems she has never regretted her choice. To keep the references straight, this statement is reminiscent, with the sexes reversed, of Shatov’s love for the lame half-wit in Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, even though she is scorned by Stavrogin and his valets. Stalker gives us a resounding echo of this love, this battle, this faith.

Tarkovsky is not merely showing off a series of tours de force around a miracle. His visual treatment is already enough to make this film a masterpiece. Nor does he limit himself to showing and judging the range of human emotions when faced with this miracle. The confrontation of these reactions nevertheless provides fuel for an essential debate, the repercussions of which are unequal in importance (to some dissident Russian writers toward our “new philosophy”) and at least have the merit of promoting modernity. He also speaks to us directly about the miracle, not only about how it reveals itself, or what men do with it, but about its essence. He never takes the easy way in doing this in Stalker. To understand more clearly what he is up to, we need to refer back to Solaris.
Briefly, the plot line of Solaris is not unlike that of the Zone. This faraway planet provides a theater for inexplicable events. It is completely covered by a foaming and mutable ocean that exerts a dangerous fascination on the scientists posted at the station. The hero of the film, who is responsible for investigating the planet, discovers—gradually and to his cost—that the ocean is a kind of immense collective subconscious (I write this reservedly, subject to further research), in which the thoughts, memories, and dreams of men come to life to haunt them. Among other things, Solaris resuscitates the dead. The protagonist is thus able to find intimacy once again with the woman he loved, who had disappeared years ago, and he has great difficulty avoiding being engulfed by this insistent and tender ghost, indestructible moreover, because she lives in his memory. (Once again, this detail is reductive. It would work if Solaris were no more than a projection from the brain of men. Thus if the hero had forgotten his wife, he would not find her again. But Solaris is much more than that. Indeed, it projects itself into human brains and dictates their fantasies.)
With this love story, one of the most heartrending I know, Solaris easily moves us more than Stalker, a more impressionistic and austere film, but the story is clearly the same.
When speaking of Tarkovsky, one cannot avoid seeing everything converge toward Solaris. That is because the very subject of this film is the source of all images, all feelings, and all dreams. Solaris claims to approach and even reveal the secret power from whence emanate all the troubles of the soul, and everything with which art attempts to deal. The filmmaker’s work is no more than a series of snapshots of the shreds of life that float to the surface of his inner ocean. He was daring enough to give us this ocean as an overview in one of his films. It is as if he were telling us: there is the sanctuary, the prison, where my dreams and yours are hatched, composed, and decomposed.

It was inevitable that he should then go back there to trawl for memories from his childhood, and that he should deliver them to us in the apparent disorganized state they are in when they drift from one body of water to another or rise to the crest of a wave. Solaris, which was about love, already signaled this line of attack by ending on the image of the father, as if the ecstatic and confident return to the real, the roots, the early years of life made it possible to tear oneself away from the magic of the planet (a very shaky illusion, as I will soon mention, because everything emanates from Solaris, including the father, the earth, and the dead). It is before his own father, the poet Arseny Tarkovsky, that the filmmaker prostrates himself in The Mirror (also called The Looking Glass). His verses give emphasis to the story of the film and erupt once again in the most beautiful and enigmatic scene in Stalker.
Stalker is a film in which Tarkovsky, tirelessly and once again, plunges into the ocean. To be sure, the metaphor has changed. No doubt he is primarily interested in human reactions rather than in phenomenon. The Zone is here on earth, but at the heart of his labyrinth, the same secret lies. And although his definition may be imprecise (is it happiness, knowledge, faith?), it is because it is the answer to all questions, the key to the enigmas of our lives and also, as we shall see, much more than that.
Some of the great dream films end by returning to the evening before, to the everyday reality. There are in these landings, however fascinating may be the spells that precede them, a form of plenitude, reassurance, and pure magic that 1 believe returns the powers of dreams to their proper place. For example, the ending of Kenji Mitzoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari is all the more moving coming after a false ending in which one’s intuition of the splendor of the world is accompanied by an illusory return to individual felicity. Alas, the potter is disenchanted, but his sadness becomes even deeper when it is mixed with resignation, the extent of the act of faith and belief in the mystery of diurnal existence that is the final word of the movie. The end of Resnais’s Providence also frames the most radiant quintet imaginable,- the final moments include a night of delicious nightmares, cross-dressing and pitfalls, glorious Nature, in the brightness of a summer’s afternoon. And, of course, the endings of Solaris, The Mirror, and Stalker. Tarkovsky is the filmmaker of these returns: to the father, to the land, to the inanimate. His love of still lifes, which was noted by Jean-Pierre Jeancolas,3 leads him to caress objects and to reveal their slow, secret palpitations. Approximately one-third of the way through Solaris, the hero spends an evening, like the eve of a battle, in his father’s house. He wanders around empty rooms, burns old papers, and walks in the early morning on the meadow, wet with dew, where a horse is trotting. I know of no other scene in all of cinema more intimate or as rich. The whole of The Mirror stems from this sequence, and if I may say so, it is of the same water.
But the final scenes of Solaris and Stalker, which are very similar, are rich in added meaning. The astronaut has left Solaris and returned to earth, and believes that he has left behind, somewhere deep in space, drifting on the surface of a faraway ocean, the woman he loved. She will be no more than a memory from now on, and perhaps even a constant pain to torment him. He returns to his father’s house, where his father is waiting for him at the threshold. The astronaut, without saying a word, kneels before him. At this point, the camera takes flight, over the house, in front of which the two figures get smaller and smaller. The neighboring countryside comes into view, and this final scene has already achieved a serene beauty. But the frame becomes even wider and reveals the house and the countryside surrounded by water. A tiny island in a sea we recognize, which we believe we left just a short while ago. Back on earth, all that has happened is that we have fallen even more deeply into the mystery of Solaris. In addition to giving us what is to my knowledge the most beautiful final shot in the history of cinema, the height from which it is taken shows the full scope of the Solaris metaphor: the plunge into the ocean, into this breeding ground of memories, dreams, and regrets, followed by the peace achieved by returning home. But the return home is another plunge into the ocean. Out of this conclusion The Mirror was logically born.
The ending of Stalker closely matches that of Solaris. The metaphor is not as grand, but it is more secret and worrisome. I just described the Stalker’s return—exhausted, angry, and worried about his injuries—and how he ended up abandoning himself to sleep under the watchful eye of his wife. The final sequence is constructed around his daughter. At the beginning, the tourists had alluded to this child, who was described as a sort of mutant. Just as the lineage of the inhabitants of a region that has been affected by radiation may well give rise to malformations, the daughter of a Stalker, a native of the Zone, could not help but bear its imprint. She was described as a legless cripple or something very much like that. As her closed and opaque face moves to the center of the screen, Tarkovsky returns to color, whereas previously all of the sequences in the Zone told us unambiguously that we had not finished with it, and that it was an illusion to think that one could ever leave. The scene is reasonably evocative, moreover, of the final pirouette so often found in fantasy films when, just as we think we are safe, some minor detail proves that the monster is, in fact, indestructible and that the horror will continue. The child, leaning over a table, looks only at the objects placed there and, using telekinesis, makes them move. As someone who has emanated from the Zone, she has the powers, the perfidy perhaps, and who knows, the secret. The Dostoyevskyan debate incarnated to some extent in the character of the humiliated Stalker has moved to the background. The film ends on a discovery that goes considerably beyond him, on the evidence of the unknowable.

I spoke just now about the ocean as a fitting metaphor. This is not true, because undoubtedly the ocean stirs up our memories and dreams. These are what Tarkovsky puts into each of his dives, those that he puts on display arbitrarily under our eyes. The ocean resuscitates the woman we loved, or our childhood. The mirror allows us to fix fleeting images. But above all else, it is ocean.
Much more than a symbol, or a Platonic cavern strictly for human use, more than an inexhaustible reservoir of anthropomorphic reveries that float to the surface like oil slicks or garbage on the seas that we know, the ocean is an autonomous entity that cannot be reduced to our understanding. It is its mystery and its unknowable nature on which Tarkovsky finally ends his film. Man finds what is good there, and it is an inestimable and heartrending treasure. But the ocean is much more than a metaphor of our unconscious, and that, no doubt, is what Tarkovsky is whispering. The unconscious is not only our unconscious: what I mean is not only what is unknown to us or hidden from us—any planet that shelters such a pathetic enigma would be unnecessary—but also everything that is unknown to us and in which we have no part.
At this stage, Tarkovsky’s metaphysical reverie abandons anthropomorphism. He speaks to us of man on a quest for himself. Very well. That is a beautiful and vast subject. But also about man on a quest for what is not himself, and also for that which is not man, and of which man cannot even dream, toward which he would have a great deal of difficulty even beginning a quest.
And although his initial questions are sometimes set out in rhetorical or allegorical terms, the answers, because of a paucity of terms and the inability to even grasp the scope, can only be solved in pure poetry. An end then to thinking and to discussions about faith and the superiority of the innocent over the intellectual— no more metaphors. Establishing the superiority of the innocent because he is in contact with the Cosmos simply serves to abandon the innocent and to have him sucked into and absorbed by the Cosmos. It is usually from the spectacle of the heavens that poets borrow pretexts for their meditations on the relativity of man, the immensity and mystery of the universe. As we noted, Tarkovsky turns away from it, like the astronaut who, abandoning Solaris, returns to his planet. He looks at his feet, scrutinizing the earth and the water. Especially the water.

In the filmmaker’s last three films, the empty beaches are, in only a few moments, suddenly flooded and covered with water. In all of cinema, I have never seen shots more dense and mysterious than these aquatic images. The same calm waters that lap over pebbles slowly float away algae. Bubbles occasionally break at the surface. They irrigate that which is no longer the planet of the ghosts, but the very soil of terra firma, in Solaris, in The Mirror, and in this unbelievable scene in Stalker, where they fill the screen, inviting nothing but contemplation, while on the accompanying soundtrack, the writer and the professor work hard to illustrate in words an opposition that we, the audience, can plainly see. Their comments are stupefying, and the Stalker, lying in the silt, allows himself to be fascinated by the flow, and appears to be at one with it. Out of this surprising counterpoint, with the image winning out so clearly over speech, are we to infer that Tarkovsky basically does not attach too much importance to the intellectual structure of his film or its human content? In any event, he allows them to fade, without any remorse, and to be left to their vacuity by the evidence and physical apprehension of the mystery They are no more than a buzzing sound, like insects on the surface of the water. What is clear is that we are these insects, and the problems and conflicts that they are debating are ours. All artists speak to us of these insects. Tarkovsky, too, but he alone films the water.

Notes:

1. I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed by this rather brilliant exercise, which Robert Benayoun (Positif, no. 231) did his best to tell us, as intimately and confidentially as possible, was perhaps because this completely legitimate shift in the scales was so obviously deliberate that it is not only the pretext for Mon Oncle but the driving force and the story itself.
2. Positif, no. 186.
3. Positif, no. 206.

Solaris, 1972. USSR. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Screenplay by Tarkovsky and Friedrich Gorenstein, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem. Cinematography by Vadim Yusov. Film editing by Ludmila Feiginova, Music by Eduard Artemyev. With Donatas Banionis (Kris Kelvin), Natalya Bondarchuk (Hari), Yuri Jarvet (Snouth), Vladislav Dvorzhetsky (Burton), Anatoly Solonitsin (Sartorius), Sos Sarkissian (Gibarian), Nikolai Grinko (Kelvin’s Father), and O. Yislova (Kelvin’s Mother). In Russian. 167 min.

Stalker, 1981. USSR. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Written by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky, based on Picnic by the Roadside. Produced by Alexandra Demidova. Cinematography by Aleksandr Knyazhinsky. Music by Eduard Artemyev, Maurice Ravel, and Ludwig van Beethoven. With Aleksandr Kajdanovsky (Stalker), Nikolai Grinko (Scientist), Anatoli Solinitsyn (Writer), and Alisa Krejndlikh (Stalker’s wife). In Russian. 160 min.

Published in Positif No. 247, October 1981

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