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Solaris: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Donatas Banionis, Natalia Bondarchuk, Yuri Jarvet,
Anatoly Solonitsyn, and Vladislav Dvorzhetsky

Written by Fridrikh Gorenshtein, and Andrei Tarkovsky
From a novel by Stanislaw Lem

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

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Review by D.K. Holm                    

Andrei Tarkovsky lived in a world of his own.

The Soviet-era film director, who died in 1986 and therefore did not quite live long enough to see his country emerge from the isolation of tyranny, was blithely uninterested in hewing to the Party line. A quasi-Freudian Christian with a belief in the sanctity and beauty of The Artist, Tarkovsky seems to have spent most of his artistic career figuring out how to fool the commanders of Soviet film production into green-lighting his subversive, politically "incorrect" feature films. Hailed in the West, to which he eventually migrated, by buffs and film scholars, Tarkovsky should be equally confounding to them, given that his Christian values and rather retrograde views of women are inconsistent with the prevailing views of those who honor him. Instead he has attained the august level of a Bergman (whose favorite director was Tarkovsky) or a Bresson (Tarkovsky's favorite Western director), one of those severe intellectual filmmakers whose films wrestle with big ideas supposedly incomprehensible to the so-called "average viewer."

But is it possible that this Emperor has no clothes?

To see 1972's Solaris again, thanks to the excellent renovations supplied by the Criterion Collection in its release of the film on DVD, is to be reminded of how little Tarkovsky concedes to the viewer. He's off in his own corner, playing with his toys and snatching them away if anyone else dares to touch them. Woe betide the simple viewer who wishes to join in on the film fun. It's Tarkovsky's movie, damn it, and everyone else can just as well stay out of his playhouse.

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Part of the reason for the exclusionary feel to his films is that Tarkovsky is a highly personal filmmaker, and unless you are intimate with his family background and personal problems a lot of his films, or at least this one, don't make complete sense upon initial viewing. Tarkovsky seems not to have gotten along with his parents. He seems to have had some deep disagreements with his father, and mother figures in his films are portrayed as a cold, distant, isolated and isolating women. Tarkovsky also had some guilt over the fate of his first marriage. Like Hardy cringing over memories of his late first wife, whom he didn't even really like at the time, in the presence of her long-suffering successor, Tarkovsky seems not to have gotten over the circumstances of his first marriage's failure even as his second one was speeding along. Unless you know the family dynamics that come into play so importantly in Solaris, it won't reach out.

Another reason may be that Tarkovsky, on a fundamental level, didn't know what the hell he was doing. He was not a natural filmmaker. He might have been better off, say, as a painter, or a poet, or in the theater. But in movies (which, by the way, are suppose to move) he imposed a disastrously slow pace and a plodding narrative-line which frustratingly preferred to withhold information from the viewer rather than inform them.

One can admire the austerity and purity of Tarkovsky's films without necessarily enjoying them. And filmmakers and film fans utterly weary of the falsity and phoniness of Hollywood product are likely to gravitate to the work of Tarkovsky as an uncompromising antidote to American superficiality. But has a major filmmaker made as many mistakes in his films as Tarkovsky? In Solaris the film switches from black and white to color without rhyme or reason. Characters are introduced without identification or motivation. Passages are padded to make some obscure (or non-?) point (the endless shots of traffic, for example). His timelines are incomprehensible and there are numerous inconsistencies of time and place. Dialogue consists of discrete sentences with no relation to those that precede or follow. His next film, Mirror, is so obscure and personal that perhaps even he couldn't understand it, though he confided to his diary those anguished moments when some Soviet bureaucrat failed to grasp its pertinence. But hey, it's our job to keep up with him, not his to speak clearly. After all, Tarkovsky is his own little world. We're just visitors.

Tarkovsky's work deserves a form of backhanded tribute, for at least it is consistent in its obscurity. It reminds me of a pile of damp moldy washcloths; it reminds me of white noise on a television screen at three in the morning; it reminds me of a symphony of yawns, of sterile medical procedures, of college professors droning endlessly into the dusk. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it, which is probably why so many film critics are snookered by it. His films drag themselves away from the dark cinematic glories of tension, and crawl insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of pretension. It is post avoiding modern. It is flicking fingers married to irony. It is balder and dash. A steady dose of Tarkovsky's films makes you almost sympathetic to the Soviet bureaucrats attempting vainly to reign in the arrogant and imperious director and make him make sense.

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Solaris is divided into a handful of large chunks. The film begins on earth, where psychologist Kris Kelvin (Ukrainian method actor Donatas Banionis) is visited at his dacha, which he shares with his father and a mysterious woman. His visitor is a colleague named Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), who was stationed at the planet Solaris some 30 years ago and had a weird encounter, He has brought some old "video tape" that explains something of Solaris, because the masters of Solaristics (the formal study of the planet, mentioned in one of the few nods to the intellectual content of Stanislaw Lem's source novel) have given Kelvin has the task of visiting the troubled spaceship Prometheus circling Solaris, a watery globe covered with what scientists believe is a sentient ocean, and evaluate its value as a continuing project. The fate of the Prometheus rests in his hands.

The second chunk finds Kelvin arriving at and exploring the near-empty space station, and having perplexing conversations with its two residents Snaut (Yuri Jarvet) and the dry, cerebral scientist Sartorious (Tarkovsky favorite actor, Anatoly Solonitsyn). In the third chunk, Kelvin finds that a manifestation of his wife Hari (Natalia Bondarchuk, the daughter of a prominent Soviet film director) has materialized. She committed suicide, and her presence seems to be born of the ocean planet's penetrating his dreams and isolating her as a realization of his remorse. The final chunk concerns various congregations and debates among the four passengers of the station, ending with an ambiguous conclusion in which Kelvin ends where he began, on the land around his dacha, but where it rains indoors and he is reconciled with his father, as the camera retreats to reveal that Solaris has sprouted an island with which to house Kris Kelvin.

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Released in the US in 1976, Solaris was shorn of some 40 minutes theatrically, which didn't help to impress middlebrow American reviewers at the time, still starry-eyed over 2001 (which Tarkovsky hated for its "coldness"). Nevertheless, the film's reputation, and Tarkovsky's, has risen over the decades, and he came to symbolize the will of the artist in the face of oppression.

So how does one judge the film? How does one judge a "science fiction" film that endlessly delays its entry into space, like a Space Shuttle launch, until 43 minutes into the film? How do you judge a philosophical movie in which the terms of debate are so vague? How do you judge a psychological-Christian tale in which the details are obscured? How do you judge a creepy movie whose disc-menu music is scarier than the movie itself? Perhaps Tarkovsky doesn't want judgment.

For a supposedly intellectual filmmaker, Tarkovsky continually comes down on the side of the irrational, the emotional, and the portentous instead of the rational and the scientific. He continually portrays intellectuals as severe, callous snobs depleting the life out of everything and everyone around them. Maybe that is based on his own experience, though more likely it comes from his resistance to the machinations of the Soviet film industry to censor or alter his films every step of the way. But not only is it paradoxical that Tarkovsky is viewed in the West as one of the most intellectual of filmmakers, but the form of his actually emotionalism is of the most elemental, vague kind of "Love is the answer" style, which is usually a mask for Christian mysticism, that puts him at odds with the very material he is adapting.

Did Tarkovsky hate science fiction? The idea has been put forward. He really only did one film in the genre, and though his wife said that he had many sci-fi books in his collection (he especially liked Ray Bradbury), he disparaged Solaris in later years. And the director did not get along at all well with Stanislaw Lem (Stanislawa Lema in Polish), who came to Moscow to discuss the project. Lem is an irascible person who basically has contempt for all science fiction that strives to "entertain," that eschews science for barely disguised war stories, and so on — in other words, almost all the world's science fiction but his own. One can imagine few getting along Lem, but the author Stanislaw Lem would have been doubly disappointed as he saw Tarkovsky turning Solaris into a romance novel.

Tarkovsky was in something of a bind in the early '70s. The film he had been working was in the Commie version of "development hell". His major opus (Andrei Rublev) was caught in Soviet bureaucratic limbo. He needed a project. Out of his hat he pulled Solaris, primarily, it seems, because science fiction was a popular genre in the USSR, and he knew he could get it financed. This is no disparagement on the director. The whole world cinema seems to run this way. But Tarkovsky was able, as many Hollywood directors did in the studio era, to take material and make it his own. It's just that some viewers may object to the details of that ownership.

Ideas like Lem's were "in the air" around that time. In the quasi-obscure film Journey to the 7th Planet, written by Ib Melchior and which came out in early 1962. Though on the surface yet another low-budget "cheesy" sci-fi film, in fact thanks to Melchior's restless imagination the ideas implicit in the film are as provocative and sophisticated as anything in Solaris, Lem's or Tarkovsky's

In Tarkovsky's defense, one must acknowledge that he makes beautiful-looking movies, filled with sensual "bourgeois" images that must have been the bane of the soviet Apparatchiks. And if you get into the spirit of the films, they can have beautiful effects, such as the exquisite poignancy of Solaris's concluding shot. You get the point of even the tedious moments, such as the four-minute sequence of traffic with the electronic music in the background gradually turning fierce, a la Antonioni. Shot in Japan, and alternating between black and white and color, the sequence has a point. An obvious one, but a point. Tarkovsky, much like Godfrey Reggio with Koyaanisqatsi, wants to contrast the peace and naturalness of country life with the visual and physical corruption and crowding of the city. He wants you to see the film, and so makes movies that need to be re-seen, despite their forbidding pace.

An easy way to understand Tarkovsky's concerns is to chart the differences between his films and the 2002 Steven Soderbergh version. In the scene of the first visitation to Kelvin by Hari, the psychologist acts rather subdued. Only later does he begin to evince fear or worry, and then proceeds to take some drastic, under-motivated steps. Compare that scene to its counterpart in Soderbergh's, in which the dead wife's visitation to George Clooney is a cause for shock and alarm, very accurately and convincingly enacted by the star. But surprisingly, the two films are more similar than expected. Both begin with a sequence on earth (unlike the book, which is set entirely on the space station) and both go in for a form of anti-scientific mysticism. (For a full consideration of Soderbergh's Solaris, turn to this review).

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Criterion has provided a magnificent pair of single-sided, dual-layered discs to commemorate Solaris (not long on the heels of Ruscico's double-disc release of Stalker in the States). It's an excellent anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that has been digitally restored. There are a few horrible scratches that were apparently irremovable, but the image is quite good. A frame comparison with Ruscico's version by MondoDigital.com is revelatory. The audio is an adequate Dolby Digital mono in Russian, with optional English subtitles.

As can be imagined, the two-disc set is packed with material. Mainly, there's an audio commentary by Tarkovsky specialists Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, authors of The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, who do a superb job of walking the viewer through the movie and almost making one like it. Their attention to detail and their wide knowledge of Tarkovsky's life and work makes for an enriching commentary just on its own.

Disc Two provides several more hours of material. It begins with nine deleted or alternative scenes: Opening Text (1:25) Berton's flight (3:06), Kris's takeoff from Earth (4:24), Something to eat (1:09), Beginning of Part II (1:00), Kris and Hari's meal, (2:22), Kris's delirium/The mirror room (4:26), Mother (6:01), and Further philosophy (1:04). Only the extended beginning of Part II adds something, which is a nice tracking shot of Hari and Kris as they walk to a launching pad within the satellite. Image quality of the clips is not as good as the feature film itself on this disc.

The rest of the DVD is interviews. The first one is with lead actress Natalia Bondarchuk (32:21), who was surprisingly young when she made the film. Like the rest of the interviewees, she begins by reminiscing how she met Tarkovsky. Next up is cinematographer Vadim Yusov (33:54), whose footage in the Earth scenes is beautiful. He is followed by art director Mikail Romadin (16:46), who makes the usual complaints about slim budgets and a dearth of time. Composer Eduard Artemyev (21:41) discusses the classical foundations demanded by Tarkovsky for the electronic score. These are all lengthy, detailed, informative, and at times fascinating interviews. Finally there is an excerpt from a documentary about Stanislaw Lem made for Polish television (4:57). There is no information as to the source of this excerpt, even what the name of the original film happens to be, it's not very long, much of it is taken up with clips from the film, and Lem doesn't appear until the last seconds.

The package is rounded out with a 12-page folding insert with chapter titles, cast notes and credits, DVD credits, plus an essay by Philip Lopate, and an interview with Akira Kurosawa — who could perhaps relate more to the crazy Mirror, which is not unlike his own later Dreams.

— D.K. Holm

Disc One

Disc Two

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