Even the cinematic frame isn’t safe from Sokurov’s grim sleight-of-hand
Painterliness in cinema has its pitfalls. Filmmakers like Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman built careers on bringing visual imagery familiar from Art 101 to the big screen, but seeing living tableaux from the canvases of Caravaggio or Franz Hals has tended to generate more critical acclaim than ticket sales. As intriguing as such work can be, the strategies behind it make it unlikely that its creators can ever move beyond cult status. This is unfortunate in the case of another practitioner of this sort of hermetic art, Russian director Alexander Sokurov. His most recent dramatic feature, Mother and Son (1997), meticulously re-creates the world of German Romanticism, specifically the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. But Sokurov, an Andre Tarkovsky disciple whose works have been banned in Russia, steers clear of both the campy kitsch of Jarman and the chilly perfection of Greenaway in this slow but agonizingly beautiful story of the decisive moment in the lives of two characters: the “son” of the title (Alexei Anashinov) tending his mother (Gudrun Geyer) on the last day of her life.
The opening credits roll over a black screen, but the soundtrack is alive with ghostly seagull cries, roaring ocean waves, and rushing winds, natural sounds that recur throughout the film and give a sense of life continuing past the death of an individual. After the credits stop, another sound is introduced that adds a less reassuring rhythm — the labored breathing of the frail mother. Sukorov’s visual distortions begin with the first shot, where the two characters embrace in a kind of inverted pieta, with the strong son comforting the weak mother. The director uses a distorting lens to stretch their bodies across the frame, as if to show how pliable, how vulnerable the human body is. The world of the film is dominated by such imagery, with death the ultimate distortion of the body.
For reasons the film never explains, the mother lives in a house that seems far from civilization, in a meadow adjacent to a beach. Sukorov’s camera records this lonely landscape in loving detail, sometimes dwarfing the characters as they move methodically down a path between giant sand dunes, sometimes magically contriving that they become part of the textures that surround them. The only sign of a world beyond this pair and their fleeting concerns is a train, heard but barely glimpsed far away.
The narrative here is so simple it almost disappears within the minutiae of their relationship. They talk; she sleeps; he carries her through the sand dunes to see the ocean. He combs her hair; they talk about their dreams and their mutual past. She moves uneasily between moods of vague terror and stoic serenity. Their physical connection is the most palpable element in this ethereal landscape; in some scenes it has almost a sexual resonance, an all-encompassing hunger for life that can only be satisfied by their embrace. Sukorov’s camera lingers to hypnotic effect on their slightest gestures, giving them a significance that transcends the physical.
In his previous film, Whispering Pages (1993), Sokurov resurrected the Russian literary classic Crime and Punishment, but shot it so perversely — through distorting lenses and in near-darkness — that it was almost impossible to figure out even simple things like what was going on, or who was doing what to whom. Mother and Son is shot mostly in daylight, with the characters and “action” easily discernible, but it’s clearly the work of the same man. The visual distortions, trancelike pace, painterly beauty of the previous film are used to even greater effect here.
In spite of the allusions to classical painting, the connection to Greenaway, Jarman, et al., is ultimately specious; Stan Brakhage might be a better choice. Like Brakhage, Sokurov alters the imagery by rending the very process of filmmaking. In Mother and Son he used special lenses, distorting mirrors placed on the sides of the camera, and painted glass set directly in front of the lens to create his sweet, sad, soft-focus world. As the director told an interviewer, “I destroy real nature and create my own.”
Sokurov’s filmography is littered with terminal imagery, titles like Days of Eclipse, And Nothing More, and no less than six different works with the word “elegy” in the title. Mother and Son is also an elegy, not only for the physical death of the mother but for the end of Russia that in her terror and serenity she clearly represents.