Great Films: Solyaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972, USSR)

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky’s birth, which is being marked with a brief retrospective of the late director’s works in London. The website features this quote from Ingmar Bergman:

“My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly I found myself standing at the door of a room the key of which had, until then, never been given to me. Tarkovsky for me is the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream”.

High praise, indeed, from the late Swedish auteur. But is his work really meritous of such high praise? He is certainly one of the most difficult directors for modern audiences to get to grips with, and beyond his two magnum opi, Solyaris and Andrei Rublev, his works are not generally well known or easily commercially available. His output was hardly prodigious: only seven feature films in a career spanning 24 years puts him closer to Terence Malick than Woody Allen.

The difficulties with watching a Tarkovsky film are no better illustrated than with a viewing of Solyaris. Mark Kermode a couple of weeks ago, rightly praising Steven Soderbergh’s excellent reimagining of Solaris (2002), described the original as ‘boring’. It is certainly true that the pacing is practically snail-like, and comparing the running time of 165 minutes with the details of the narrative structure does tell you that there are huge chunks of the film where very little happens. Tarkovsky is also famous for his long shot-lengths; The Sacrifice apparently has an average shot length of 72 seconds. When one compares that with Michael Bay’s famously jumpy Armageddon, which weighs in with an ASL of less than 2 seconds, we can see the contrast. ASLs of over 10 are generally considered to be high, so 72 really appears almost excessive.

With his deliberately slow pacing, and rather dreamlike shooting, it is easy to understand why many find Tarkovsky inaccessible. It doesn’t help that Solyaris also features other rather baffling elements, in particular a bizarrely long five-minute sequence of a car journey through a Japanese metropolis which seems out of place and completely unneccesary. This, apparently, was inserted to give Soviet viewers a feeling of futuristicness, though to the foreign viewer it is plain irritating.

A little about the story. Solyaris is technically an adaptation of a wonderful novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, though the screenplay takes great artistic licence with the source material. Occupants of a research station orbiting the planet Solaris have been sending rather erratic mesages back to Earth, so scientist Kris Kelvin is sent there to investigate. When he arrives, he discovers that it has descended into disarray, that one of the crew has committed suicide, and that the other crew members are behaving very strangely. It emerges that strange visitors from the crew’s past have been appearing, and soon enough this happens to Kelvin in the form of his dead ex-wife, Hari.

The film does not satisfy on a purely science fiction level: although the space station is fairly believably created, there are very little special effects, and those there are pale in comparison to those found in Stanley Kubrick’s earlier epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. These are very different films, though, although Tarkovsky’s apparent desire to completely diverge from the Kubrick film is not entirely satisfied. The core of the film is not the protagonist Kelvin but ultimately Hari, his dead wife, superbly played by Natalya Bondarchuk. She is not stricly real, but a composite of Kelvin’s memories and feelings about his ex-wife. Details are not completely fleshed out, gaps are not satistactorily filled, and she cannot exist without his presence.

The film, therefore, is looking at human relationships, and our ideas and feelings towards other people, even people we feel completely intimate with. That Steven Soderbergh managed to also satisfactorily film this in 99 minutes does not mean that Tarkovsky’s adaptation is too long-winded; it merely means he is giving the ideas, themes and persepectives of the film enough time to breathe. For me, Solyaris is a truly great film not for its technical perfection, but for its ability to make us think about what other people really mean to us, and in that sense it is true to Lem’s extraordinary novel.

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