Among the many highlights of Marcel Proust’s magnum opus In Search of Lost Time is the death (in the novel’s fifth volume, The Prisoner) of the writer Bergotte. Despite a potentially life-threatening case of uremia, Bergotte goes to a Parisian museum to view a favorite painting (Johannes Vermeer’s View of Delft) after a local art critic points out a heretofore unseen detail, a patch of yellow wall “so well painted that it was, if one looked at it in isolation, like a precious work of Chinese art, of an entirely self-sufficient beauty…” As Bergotte, increasingly lightheaded from his illness and mistaking it, rather comically, for indigestion, stares at and contemplates this new discovery he says to himself, “That is how I should have written,” then repeats “little patch of yellow wall” several times before being fatally felled by a stroke.
Aleksandr Sokurov’s Mother and Son is itself a “little patch of yellow wall,” a film to die to, in other words, and I say that without a shred of morbidity. More than any other art form, cinema has something of the strong stench of death about it. Artists are by nature jailers of human experience, entrapping imagination and all its limitless wilds via words, images, or sounds, and then presenting the spoils for the consideration—quite often the slobbering delectation—of a varied, voyeuristic audience. The work might as well be a corpse by the time we’re done with it, run through with poisoned arrows of love and hate, torn apart and dissected by our cutting, contradictory interpretations that are, more often than not, drowned out by a cacophony of self-same voices. We flatten the work in order to understand it, though, it must be admitted, that the work itself often encourages us to those ends.
The brilliance of Mother and Son is how it turns perspective and perception against us. Of Caspar David Friedrich (the 19th-century German Romantic painter whose work, not so incidentally, was Sokurov’s primary inspiration for Mother and Son‘s skewed mise-en-scène), the novelist Heinrich von Kleist is reported to have written: “a Friedrich landscape, one with nothing but a frame as foreground, makes me feel as if my eyelids had been cut away.” Such a revolutionary sentiment—the idea of a work of art that invites and encourages (and not without some violence) an eternal gaze rather than involuntary aversion—finds its full expression in Mother and Son. It is a film compulsively aware of itself as two-dimensional; through the use of special distorting lenses, Sokurov collapses foreground, middle-ground, and background, erasing the illusion of depth. A static blur hangs, like an immovable fog, around the sides of the frame, effectively eliminating peripheral vision—and perhaps foreshadowing, as an artist’s work is wont to do, Sokurov’s recently rumored, slowly impending blindness.
This collapse of perspective applies equally to Mother (Gudrun Geyer) and Son (Aleksei Ananishnov), both of whom, as is clear from an opening scene in which they recall having the same dream, are elemental presences playing out an intimate and ritualistic death-rattle pas de deux. They begin the film as nearly inseparable appendages who, over the course of a single day (the ailing mother’s last day alive as it will turn out), grow increasingly farther apart, though only in a physical sense. Indeed, as Mother and Son move through the flattened spaces of Sokurov’s various landscapes it becomes apparent that they are bridging a metaphysical divide, bracing themselves for an inevitable end even as life goes on around them. Ghostly figures move through the background, summertime winds and insects (sharing company with orchestral snippets from Glinka, Nussio, and Verdi) provide a mournful, probing musical accompaniment, while far off glimpses of a train and a boat—both moving rapidly toward an off-screen unknown—act as humbling reminders of the inescapable mortality that we both fear and long for.
And yet there’s a strong subversive undercurrent running through Mother and Son, suggesting its protagonists are somehow in collusion, attempting to cheat and ultimately escape divine law. This only becomes explicit in the film’s final scene when the Son attends to his Mother’s corpse and whispers, “We will meet where we agreed. Wait for me.” The plan, in other words, was always in effect, though to what purpose and end? If cinema is indeed a prison, then perhaps its characters, figures essentially embalmed within various finite eternities, long for escape. Yet theirs is fundamentally a Möbius-strip existence: The only escape comes from going right back around to the beginning and passing before another set of eyes. It’s little surprise, then, that Mother and Son‘s final image could easily feed back, ad infinitum, into its first. The film is a painting in perpetual motion, an intimate tale of a death foretold that, with Sokurov as mediator and cinema as sanctifier, effectively fosters its own resurrection.