Mother and Son

Sokurov's Chamber Piece

by Donato Totaro Volume 2, Issue 3 / August 1998 8 minutes (1818 words)

We should be extremely grateful to the Festival of International Film and New Media’s (and its earlier incarnations) for its consistent programming of Alexander Sokurov’s films. It is there that over the past several years I have seen most of his features: The Lonely Voice of Man (1978-1987), Days of the Eclipse (1988), Save and Protect (1989), The Second Circle (1990), Stone (1992), Whispering Pages (1993) and Mother and Son . Now we should thank Cinéma Paralléle for programming Mother and Son for a month from mid-September to mid-October. Having said that, no one should have any excuse for missing one of the greatest film experiences of the 1990’s. The anticipation of a seeing a Sokurov film has me torn between hushed excitement and outright yelling because I know that he will take me places few directors dare go.

For years, Sokurov had been touted as the heir apparent to Andrei Tarkovsky as Russia’s film master. Indeed, Sokurov was Tarkovsky’s prized student at the Moscow Film School (VGIK), and in one of his final interviews Tarkovsky said of him, “You see, in Leningrad there is a young director, a cinematic genius. His name is Alexander Sokurov.” For those who know how stingy Tarkovsky was with his accolades, that is an impressive complement. Though Sokurov acknowledges Tarkovsky as a major source of inspiration (and has also made a documentary on Tarkovsky entitled Moscow Elegy in his Elegy series), he is quick to refute much of a direct influence. As he has said, “I would say that we had a very close friendship rather than collegial collaboration” (Film Comment, Nov.-Dec., 1997, p. 23). I can see where he would want to create some distance between himself and Tarkovsky, but there still are many aesthetic (formal rather than thematic) parallels between them.

Perhaps more than any other filmmaker working in narrative (and narrative is used very loosely for Sokurov), Sokurov is the most uncompromising, and perceptually challenging filmmaker. In this regard, Mother and Son is perhaps his least demanding and Stone his most demanding film. In Stone , the story of a museum custodian who periodically talks with the ghost of Chekhov, the image texture is so bleached, porous, and still, that it seems as if we’re looking through a blizzard into a garden of cement statues.

Mother and Son is a chamber piece concerning the remaining moments (minutes, hours, days, years?) between a son (Alexei Ananishnov) and his dying mother (Gudrun Geyer) at a country cottage. It is an area Sokurov has visited before. In The Second Circle a young man returns home to tend to his father’s funeral and spends most of the film’s time in a room with his dead father’s corpse. The difference of course, is that in Mother and Son the mother only dies at the end (although Sokurov likes to leave open the possibility that she is not yet dead). Perhaps this difference stems from Sokurov’s belief that the relationship between a father and son is very, very complex, while that between a son and mother – and here Sokoruv stresses a Russian context – can be reduced to undying, profound love. In any case, whereas the mood in the latter film was claustrophobic and apocalyptic, Mother and Son oozes with a sense of joy and love that is only tempered by the ambivalent surrounding nature -wondrously beautiful but ominous and foreboding.

The film is a symphony of rippling variations on this single shared moment between dying mother and nurturing, caring son. It is as if Sokurov took the opening scene of Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), in which a grandfather dies an idyllic death amid nature and his family, and extended it into a feature film. (There are other allusions to Earth , a film that equally influenced Tarkovsky.) In the film’s opening shot, an extreme long take filmed with a distorting lens, mother and son are lying together in bed. Toward the end of the shot the son says, “Last night I had a dream. It was strange.” The relationship between them is so profound and symbiotic that they even share the same dreams. The dialogue in effect cues us to the film’s oneiric status. You can throw temporal and spatial certainty out the window. A similar uncertainty hovers between life and death, as it does with the representation of nature. The mother, frail and ghostly, is suffering from an undisclosed illness that causes her great pain. At times we hear her troubled breathing and painful gasps for air. From one moment to the next we are not sure if the mother is dead or alive. The son routinely carries his mother out for walks along repetitive winding dirt roads, roads which in themselves suggest the crossing over between life and death. Death is sensed throughout the film -the sound of buzzing flies, an ominous black cloud that mysteriously drifts into frame, the coffin-like positioning of the mother in her bed. However, there is a great sense of life and humanity in the son’s tenderness and the surrounding, vibrant nature.

The use of nature is one of the film’s most striking aspects. Its presence is felt in every frame both visually and aurally: flowers, trees, mountains, wind, dust, clouds, thunder, crickets, cuckoo birds, rustling fire, running water. Even when indoors we see the shadowed reflection of leaves and branches on walls and across their faces. The nature is beautiful and majestic, yet eerily estranged through Sokurov’s extreme stylization. At times we can not orient ourselves spatially, like the time the son seems to be at a gravity defying angle on what looks like the sandy side of a mountain. We often hear the sound of an ocean, but only see mountains, pastures, hills, forests, and winding dirt roads. Until there is a cut to a single perplexing full frame shot of a schooner at sea. One moment we hear cracking thunder and then see sunlight cascading through trees and into open spaces. In fact the sky always appears dark and foreboding, yet sunlight is often present. In several long take shots striking light changes occur in real time. In one high angle long shot, wind-blown reeds give the illusion of rippling water – a Tarkovskian shot if there every was one! Where Tarkovsky in Solaris gives earthly qualities to the planet solaris, Sokurov makes nature feel alien.

I have left for last the most powerful alienating effect on nature, Sokurov’s use of special distorting lenses and mirrors that give the image an oblique, quivering feel. It is a unique form of distortion, one that has had many viewers baffled. When pressed for technical information Sokoruv relates that everything was done through simple (though detailed and painstaking) means using mirrors, large panes of glass, and thin paint brushes, alongside special lenses. Nothing was done to the image in post-production. For Sokurov this amounts to a moral position. In the printed interview quoted above Sokoruv has said that his intention was to foreground the flatness of the film image: “I didn’t want a three-dimensional space, but rather a surface, a picture. I finally wanted to be honest and say that the art of film is a lie, if it maintains that it can produce a three-dimensional space, or spatiality.” Another way I would describe this unique distorting effect is to compare it to watching a 3-D film with the 3-D glasses off!

Though Sokurov acknowledges his debt to the German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich, his film can also be likened to the French Impressionist filmmakers of the 1920’s (Abel Gance, Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein), who also manipulated the image in front of the camera through “low tech” special effects: smeared and/or distorted lenses, slow motion, irises, superimpositions, hand-made mattes, etc. With each new film Sokurov creates a fascinating visual and aural dreamscape that, if entered, can lead to a unique, phenomenological experience. I can vividly remember my viewing of his magnificently apocalyptic Days of the Eclipse . The film had me oscillating between a semi-sleep state and moments of altered consciousness. At one point I nearly dozed off, as if this were somehow the intent of the film. At other moments my body tingled from the film’s sensual use of form and physical and human landscape..

Though more viewer-friendly than Stone or The Second Circle , Mother and Son continues a Sokurovian perceptual slight of hand which, to viewer’s accustomed to more mainstream fare, can become wearying, if not frustrating. Mother and Son unfolds with a feeling of timelessness. We do not know with certainty what period the film is set at, or its time span. The temporal interval between many shots and scenes is indefinable. Takes are held for so long that we lose temporal perspective. The film lasts 73 minutes but contains only 58 shots, for an extremely long average shot length of one minute and fifteen seconds (three seconds longer than Tarkovsky’s highest average, 72 seconds for The Sacrifice ). This radical long take style is an important part of the film’s pace, a pace that, at times, verges on stillness. But there are other factors, such as the heightened natural sounds, the sparing use of melancholic music, and the subtle use of slow motion. There is so little action or movement in some shots that we only become aware of the slow motion when something extraneous occurs, like a fly or butterfly entering the frame. Whatever little narrative action there is repeats rather than progresses. The pace is so mesmerizing that the film feels sculpted rather than edited. This style, which can be likened to what Paul Schrader has called “an aesthetic of stasis,” centers around the vibrations emanating from the emotions of the mother and son. It is, after all, their world, a world that Village Voice critic Jim Hoberman referred to as a “soporific twilight zone.” Only the distant sight of a train, or the inexplicable shot of the schooner adrift at sea, signals a world beyond.

The penultimate shot of the film is a close-up of the mother’s ghostly, wrinkled hands, upon which clings a dead moth. How long has she been dead? How much time has elapsed since the son last saw her? The son blows on the dead moth, which after a while seems to come alive. Are we to think that the mother has also come alive? These are, of course, unimportant questions. In great art, it’s not the answer that is important but the road travelled by the question. And as the son says to the dying/dead mother at the end, “Wait for me…where we said.” Mother and Son is showing for a month at the Cinéma Paralléle. I hope that everyone can travel its road. In the least, do it for your mother!

At the Cinéma Parallèle until october 15.

Mother and Son

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of ACQQ (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 2, Issue 3 / August 1998 Film Reviews alexander sokurov, cinematography, mother and son, russian cinema