Monday, 3 September 2018

Andrei Tarkovsky and a personal lack of appreciation

1/ I’ve just watched The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky’s last film.
It’s a film I wanted to like, as it was shot in Sweden, with some of Ingmar Bergman’s long-time collaborators such as cinematographer Sven Nykvist and actor Erland Josephson. You can tell that The Sacrifice is a Tarkovsky film—slow, meditative, with long takes, soft light, water, nature shots, philosophical themes, switch between colour and B&W or sepia… But at the same time, some parts of it make me think of Bergman—the shot of Alexander (Erland Josephson) with the tree at the beginning of the film is reminiscent of a scene in The Virgin Spring; Victor’s question about whether Alexander sees his life as a failure reminds me of Wild Strawberries and Autumn Sonata; the monologue about actors and identity might just fit perfectly in Persona; the scene of Alexander talking to God as he expects an apocalypse makes me think of Antonius Block talking to God in The Seventh Seal during the time of a plague, and so on.
But for some reasons, it doesn’t work for me. I just don’t get it. I can’t connect to the characters, who most of the time are too far away in the wide shots. I don’t share their affliction and can’t take them seriously. I don’t care for religion and don’t ponder about the end of the world. It says more about me than about the film—it’s not that I don’t understand The Sacrifice, I just don’t feel anything and can’t connect to it.
Maybe I lack something. Maybe The Sacrifice is for a certain kind of audience that I’m not. Maybe it’s about taste and personal vision—the same way I prefer Fellini to Antonioni but feel closer to Bergman, or love Kurosawa and Mizoguchi but not Ozu, I recognise Tarkovsky’s greatness but simply don’t warm to him.
2/ I’ve had some bad experiences with religious people, and the last time, which was about 2 years ago, has pushed me further and further away from religion. Since then, I haven’t read any Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, so it’s hard to say how I’d feel about them now, but part of me is switched off when a film treats religious themes. If the film is about struggles with faith, or lack of faith, like Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or Winter Light, I might like them and be able to appreciate them (these 2 are excellent works). With something like Ordet or The Sacrifice, something in me is switched off.
3/ Out of the 4 Tarkovsky films I have seen, Solaris, Mirror, Ivan’s Childhood, and The Sacrifice (in that order), Ivan’s Childhood and Solaris are my favourites.
The Sacrifice leaves me cold.
Mirror I don’t understand.
It is a personal thing. In literature, I’m a Tolstoy person, which transfers to my taste in cinema—I like characters as people, complex, multi-faceted and full of contradictions, not characters as embodiment of ideas; I’m interested in storytelling, and fascinated by emotions, relationships, and personal problems, not abstract ideas and philosophical concerns. Compare, my list of favourite films includes Persona, Citizen Kane, Nights of Cabiria, Sunset Boulevard… whereas my bf’s favourites are more like idea films, such as Blade Runner, The Seventh Seal, Ordet, La Jetée, and Solaris.
Over the past year and a half, my aesthetics have developed in a new direction—pure realism told chronologically bores me; with the influence of European auteurs such as Bergman, Fellini, Bunuel, and even Tarkovsky, I’m utterly fascinated by the idea of film as dream, the idea of exploring the inner world and moving between reality and the world of dream and fantasy.
But ultimately, it’s still people and their personal stories that most interest me. Not fancy effects. Not abstract ideas.
That’s probably why I prefer Ivan’s Childhood to Mirror and The Sacrifice. Ivan’s Childhood has a clear narrative and focuses on people’s lives in war, especially the impact of war on children. Mirror and The Sacrifice are too abstract, too meditative for my taste. Even Solaris, a beautiful, haunting, and thoughtful film, makes me think more than it makes me feel, and doesn’t have a strong impact as something like Persona or Cries and Whispers does.
4/ As a film student, I’m of the opinion that Tarkovsky would be a bad influence (even though all aspiring filmmakers should watch his films). 
It’s partly because anyone who attempts to copy him (nature shots, abstract shots, meditative mood…) without real depth ends up boring the audience and appearing pretentious and pseudo-intellectual. It’s extremely difficult to make a deep philosophical film and successfully convey such ideas in images. Making an obscure film nobody understands is easy. Tarkovsky’s a thinker.
Tarkovsky would be a bad influence also because he doesn’t particularly care about the audience. Ingmar Bergman, even whilst making deeply personal films, always has the audience in mind. There should be a balance—a director of any worth should not follow the mainstream and stoop down to the lowest common denominator, but at the same time, cannot ignore the audience entirely.
5/ Here is a video about Tarkovsky and Lars von Trier:

TARKOVSKY / VON TRIER - Le Maître et l'élève from Titouan Ropert on Vimeo.


  1. i'm not acquainted enough with the two artists to decide which i liked better: they're both incredible, it seemed to me... i was surprised and moved by both... tx...

    1. Do you like Bergman too then? Nice to hear that.

    2. i've liked some of his work, not all... i shy away from gruesome, horror, or ugly...

    3. I know what you mean. Love Bergman though, probably because I lived in Norway.
      Check out Smiles of a Summer Night though. It's completely different. And not depressing at all.

  2. you might check out Tarnmoor, a blog on wordpress... he's a former film writer and has an interesting post today on "auteurs"...

    1. I've just read it.
      Some lecturers/tutors of my film school are very much against auteur theory. But then I think in the UK, directors don't have as much freedom as in some other countries in Europe.
      I'm not sure how I feel about Andrew Sarris’s auteur pantheon.
      Andrew Sarris and I are very different, I'm afraid. His list leaves out lots of important auteurs such as Bergman, Fellini and Bunuel, who I think are more personal and serious than Hitchcock, and better than Max Ophuls. If I remember correctly, Andrew Sarris's idea of the greatest film of all time is The Earrings of Madame de..., which is fantastic in terms of cinematography and has some wonderful moments, but as a whole is a ridiculous film because of its plot and premise.