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Solaris

February 13, 2017

Solaris (1972)
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Actors: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Anatoly Solonitsyn

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Synopsis: Chris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is a psychologist sent to investigate strange happenings on a spacecraft orbiting the planet of Solaris…

Review: A companion piece to his other stellar science fiction work, Stalker (which was released two films subsequently), Solaris is, quite simply, a majestic treatise on what it means to be human – using the trappings of its nominal genre (and Stanislaw Lem’s source novel) to construct a sensory and metaphysical ode to love and memory.

Opening on a deceptively simple pastoral vision of Chris Kelvin’s family homestead (but there’s something unnerving in Tarkovsky’s insistent gaze over the lake, the vegetation and the house itself), Tarkovsky sets up a classic cyclical narrative structure which will wind up with Kelvin seemingly back on home turf at the end, having braved the colossal sentimental and ethical distress he will be subject to on the spacecraft orbiting the planet of Solaris.

The thematic purpose of Solaris is evidenced through the staggering cut on the 40-minute mark which takes Kelvin literally from terra firma to the space shuttle – the lack of exposition regarding Kelvin’s journey to outer space revealing it is the ethics of the sci-fi ‘macguffin’ Tarkovsky is interested in, not its minutiae. Tarkovsky then sets about crafting his thesis from every possible angle: language, soundscape, editing, palette, production design, changes in film stock, and even the space within his shots (his famous “sculpting in time” edict). Particularly striking and of profound rhetorical significance is the sensual contrast between the verdant, autumnal hues of Kelvin’s life on Earth versus the otherworldly metallic textures and clinical whites and silvers of the space station he lands on.

The arrival of Kelvin’s “visitor” – his dead wife, Hari – is one of the great cinematic entrances. Appearing almost literally from a dream, her silhouetted and partly obscured face hearkens uncannily to the reveal of Judy/Madeleine in Hitchock’s Vertigo – another film that uses the spectral female form to muse on the fated quest for perfection and the transience of mortal love. Natalya Bondarchuk’s incarnation of Hari is absolutely heartbreaking: her gazing into a mirror and asking “who is this?” is almost an anti-Lacanian moment, and her growing compassion and understanding of her husband’s grief is what underpins the sentimental crisis in the central act of the film.

Elsewhere in Tarkovsky’s rhetorical canvas, Bach’s mournful Chorale Prelude in F Minor battles with the staggering shards of synthesiser (a similar effect as in Stalker) to create an aural battleground for Kelvin’s soul. And the closing scene of Kelvin’s symbolic abyme as he is both back on home turf yet not exactly, puts the seal on Tarkovsky’s cerebral politicking: that we would wilfully enter the abyss to sanctify that which is most precious to us – our memories, our compassion, and our capacity for love. (February 2017)

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