In search of the world in a drop of water
“Never try to convey your idea to the audience – it is a thankless and senseless task. Show them life and they’ll find themselves the means to assess and appreciate it.”
During his short but intense career, the great Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) was unambiguous about the films and filmmakers that had the most profound influence on him. “I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman,” he said referring to Robert and Ingmar respectively, as the two filmmakers whose style, form, and investigations into human nature best informed his own.
A clear line of inheritance can be traced between the French and Swedish masters and the Russian filmmaker. From Bresson, Tarkovsky harnessed the power of the simple image; framing seemingly minor events and minimal action for maximum effect on the heart. From Bergman, Tarkovsky absorbed an interest in the individual’s relationship to the silent void, using cinema to ask questions of a spiritual nature. Both tendencies are visible in Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice (1986), where one man’s willingness to sacrifice his life has the potential to redeem a sick world.
A branch extends sideways from these three filmmakers, to that other exceptional chronicler of the modern malaise, Michelangelo Antonioni. This is most potent in his informal trilogy of the early 1960s, made up of L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), and his final, most devastating installment L’eclisse (1962). The legacy of exploring beauty in bleakness continues today in the work of the Danish provocateur, Lars von Trier, who has claimed Tarkovsky as his greatest love, and his film Mirror (1975), as his bible.
Tarkovsky’s development of a singular cinematic language, can be traced back to Bergman, Bresson, and Antonioni, and mapped forward, into films clearly influenced by him – Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1969), Carlos Reygadas’ Japón (2002), Claire Denis’ White Material (2010), and von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). It is an aesthetic concerned with existential questions, and explores these both thematically and stylistically. Across these films, we repeatedly encounter characters in crisis; on a spiritual (not necessarily religious) quest to find meaning in what is depicted as a meaningless, lonely world.
In Diary of a Country Priest (1951) – Tarkovsky’s favourite film – Bresson’s young priest (Claude Laydu), is placed in his first parish and pushed to the margins of a community that doesn’t want him there and treats him with barely disguised resentment. While the film’s plot is minimal, it is the priest’s spiritual survival in the face of near constant physical and psychic anguish that resonates. Similarly, Reygadas’ Japón, offers an abstract, philosophical riddle – a middle-aged man who is deeply depressed and looking to kill himself, yet somehow achieves transcendence in the midst of darkness.
Within this Tarkovskian aesthetic, relationships – romantic, sexual, or communal – are troubled. Love is agonising. Communication fails. Characters are isolated and a sense of dread and unease dominates their attempts to connect with others. Bergman’s protagonists in Shame (1968), Eva (Liv Ullmann) and Jan (Max von Sydow), discover it is impossible to keep violence at bay as the civil war they thought they had escaped intrudes on their lives.
Through this microcosm of one small community, Bergman explores the effects of the aftermath of war – how society ceases to function, and especially how social relations and people crumble. In Denis’ African-set White Material a sense of hopelessness in human relations is magnified through the increasing isolation – and waking nightmares – of coffee farmer, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), from the community that no longer wants her there. But like the best of Tarkovsky it does this by implanting beauty in every sound and image, however brutal.
Physical environments don’t fare any better in this existentialist framework, inspiring anxiety and ennui. The bleak tedium of the modern city is supremely imagined in the vision of Rome presented by Antonioni in L’eclisse. Here, the built environment of the EUR district created by Mussolini makes architecture a key player in the storytelling, as Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Piero (Alain Delon), uneasily find each other, cling to each, but fail to really connect.
The couple’s alienation looms in the ominous structures that shadow them, including a mushroom-shaped water tower that portends atomic war. A similarly repressive physical dynamic is at play in Bresson’s film, which renders the young priest’s environment like an austere prison that amplifies his despair and quickens his sickness.
If L’eclisse, with its mushroom cloud architecture and eerie emptiness signalled that the end of the world was close at hand, Melancholia takes that apocalyptic energy and makes it real. Dread is writ large early on in von Trier’s film. In its opening sequence, we see Justine (Kirsten Dunst) running in her wedding dress through a landscape that threatens to consume her. The Earth is in revolt, von Trier seems to be suggesting, and we can either choose to face it head on or run from it. Like Tarkovsky, and Bergman before him, von Trier’s interest is less in the impending disaster and more in how people’s behaviour is altered by it, for better or worse.
If Tarkovsky acquiesced to the bleakness in Bresson, Bergman, and Antonioni, he also extended the beauty in each of their visions. Across seven films, Tarkovsky granted our contemporary sense of hopelessness striking moments of sublime grace, through a reverence for the natural world, and by exploring the overlap between reality, dreams and memories. The Color of Pomegranates takes up this mantle, creating its own poetic form.
Parajanov started making films in response to Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962). His dream-like vision of the life of the 18th-century Armenian singer and poet, Sayat-Nova, is a deeply personal, bold work that eschews conventional narrative logic and linearity. Parajanov also made use of Tarkovsky’s signature long, single camera takes, that force the audience to look, carefully, at what is happening within the frame. Such slow sequences act like a mirror – into the inner life of characters, and ultimately, for us to look into and confront ourselves.
“The image is not a certain meaning, expressed by the director,” Tarkovsky explained, “but an entire world reflected in a drop of water.” His films, like those that influenced him, and those that reveal the weight of his influence, often pose the biggest of all questions – what is the meaning of life and why are we here? But they each do it in the least didactic way imaginable – by never actually asking them. They are films that confirm Tarkovsky’s belief in cinema’s ability to illuminate our place in the world, not by telling us what and why, but by guiding us towards discovering our own answers.
- Joanna Di Mattia
Celebrating the director's muses and progeny, our Stalking Tarkovsky season, screens until July 29.
Joanna Di Mattia is a film writer from Melbourne, Australia. Her criticism can be found at ACMI, SBS Movies, The Big Issue, Senses of Cinema, Kill Your Darlings, Real Time Arts and The Seventh Row. She also blogs, irregularly at In A Lonely Place.