A Sight for Sore Eyes
Matthew Plouffe on Mother and Son
“Why is it that the artist seeks to destroy the stability sought by society? Settembrini in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain says, ‘I trust engineer, that you have nothing against malice? I consider it to be reason’s most brilliant weapon against darkness and ugliness. Malice, my dear sir, is the soul of criticism, and criticism—the source of progress and enlightenment.’ The artist seeks to destroy the stability by which society lives, for the sake of drawing closer to the ideal. Society seeks stability, the artist—infinity. The artist is concerned with absolute truth, and therefore gazes ahead and sees things sooner than other people.” Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time
I have taken upon myself a task which I have fairly begun to regret: to write about a film nonpareil in its ability to leave me at a loss for words. Alexander Sokurov’s Mother and Son seemed an obvious choice months ago when a knowing editor asked well in advance if I’d like to write about it for a symposium on spirituality in cinema. I believe my knee-jerk response was, “I’d give anything to write on that film.” Here I am, the dunderhead, the deadline not so far on the horizon, feeling as if I’ve committed not merely to the impossible, but to blasphemy. Transcendent artwork often impels one to keep his mouth shut for fear of committing sacrilege in forced penetration of an inviolate beauty. The Mann reference made above by Sokurov’s late friend and cinematic contemporary Andrei Tarkovsky is fitting—I’m reminded of the illustrious writer Gustav von Aschenbach’s similarly dubious fascination with the blond epicene Tadzio in Death in Venice: a master of the intellect, he stumbles over himself, besotted by a young boy, some heavenly ideal on two feet, beyond him, within and so far out of reach. It is, I suppose, not so far from Alexei Ananishnov’s “clever but heartless” Son grasping the enormity of his mother’s quiet death in this wondrous film. How does one begin to approach lucidity in such a state of overwhelming awe? In some sense, I feel we’re all in the same boat, and seeing as I’ve already managed a paragraph about how I could never manage at all, I may as well proceed.
“Last Night I had a dream,” Sokurov’s strapping protagonist recalls as he lays on what will soon be the deathbed of his ailing mother (Gudrun Geyer). “I was walking along a path and someone was following me…finally, I turned around and asked him why he was following me. Guess what he said?” “He asked you to remind him of several lines,” she picks up, with barely a whisper. “I am seized by a suffocating nightmare. I awake terror-stricken, covered in sweat. God, dwelling in my soul, affects only my consciousness. He never extends beyond me to the outer world, to the course of things.” Simultaneously, they repeat those lines once more and the hulking man lowers his gaze to the tiny woman who birthed him. “That means we have the same dreams.” “Yes,” she replies, “We do.”
The bond between mother and son has for so long been the subject of intense artistic and psychological scrutiny, that one has to wonder at a portrait of that relationship rendered without trying paeans to King Oedipus, conceived in unfettered tenderness the likes of which cinema has not known. With the morning conversation that locates Mother and Son in its first moments, doors open to the liminal space in which this ethereal film so gracefully plays out. A delicately constructed proto-cinematic canvas Rembrandt might have dreamt up, ineffable bonds between mother and son emerge resplendent in this unprecedented portraiture, documenting the last day of a worn woman’s life. As striking as their conversation, the image from which it emerges reveals a master of nuance, a painter at heart; fitting then, that this film seems born of the brush, not the lens. To achieve the dreamscape aesthetic, Sokurov and DP Alexei Fyodorov used angled panes of glass to bend and refract light, to realize each setup as if—as Cineaste’s Kirill Galetski so beautifully comments in an interview with Sokurov— “reflected in the surface of a teardrop.” The bucolic topography is rendered something otherworldly; it’s less the stroke of a romantic, than a distorted memory housed deep beneath the sprawling intellect of an anomalous, plodding artisan in which a distinctive relationship between a son, a mother, and the omnipotent one at whose doorstep she rests, is forged. Sokurov’s eye, unlike Tarkovsky’s high-angle vision of man considering the dirt under his feet, stares out at the horizon, up to the sky, invoking mysteries which lay far beyond this atmosphere.
“Get me out,” Geyer gasps, caught in a torrent of pain. “Yourself, yourself,” her son winces, straining to support her arched back. “Who is that up in the sky?” she asks. A moment and he looks up, almost faithfully. “No one,” he concedes, though his efforts to meet divine eyes are not unjustified. God is here in nature’s possessed, taunting spirit. Cradling his mother like the child she once cradled, they walk along dirt roads, battling relentless winds that seek to rip the old woman from her son’s formidable grasp. He kneels to rest, to protect her from bellowing gusts, God’s paw ready to carry the elder far away from this barely corporeal countryside. While a mother’s heavenly interlocutor pulls her gaze upward, a mighty son struggles in vain to foil His efforts, to plant her feet on the ground. “What do I do with you?” he asks her, as she settles into the darkness. “You don’t want to sleep. You don’t want to eat.” “I feel so sorry for you,” she offers. “You will have to go through all of what I have suffered. It’s so unfair.” How can one prepare to greet death, knocking at the worn wooden door, and what is to become of those left behind? The reality of the situation inspires only the mundane, a mere whimper. “You used to give me the mark ‘satisfactory,’” he says, recalling the days his mother was a busy schoolteacher. “If you were still working today, you’d also give me a ‘satisfactory’, right?”
The filmmaker seems in interviews like the “head person” Ananishnov’s Son describes himself to be here, yet as with many of the finest works of visual art, intellectual unpacking of Mother and Son is strictly optional; suffice it to say that inside the mummifying hut, each image reeks of an atrophy that can nearly be tasted. In long takes that require digestion beyond attention, Sokurov offers death’s hushed venom pumping assiduously through the fragile, deteriorating female body. It’s enough to finally crumble a stone-faced intellectual. In the aforementioned interview, the filmmaker comments that “the art of cinema has not yet come into being,” but it’s tough to contest the artistic merit of a film that manages to measure the weight of death by calculating the displacement that results from the inestimable mass of absence, finally realized when the son wanders alone out to the forest and sobs amidst pillars of strength. Glorious, fertile tree trunks taunt this hulking man, reduced to plain, unmitigated emotion.
A taut 73 minutes, Mother and Son marks an artistic and cinematic highpoint in Sokurov’s vast and spotted oeuvre. Not an image is wasted, not a thought superfluous. Its construction seems as eternal as the themes with which it is engaged and in this age of wholly dispensible output, it appears something altogether extraterrestrial. Linking tableau to tableau using barely-connected shots of the countryside reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu’s famed “coda” interpolations, Sokurov’s strange ellipses-as-driving-narrative-force, conceive an unlikely and acute attention to the moment, to the immediacy of each careful movement which may just be the last. One wonders whether this is what life feels like for someone on their way out: distorted waves of consciousness marked by precious gems of sunlight and lucidity.
It may be then, that Sokurov, as Tarkovsky suggests of the artist, has seen something sooner than the rest of us. Incredibly, he’s found a way to put it on film. It’s a vision as personal as it is timeless, and ultimately devastating enough to destroy that stability we all seek as individuals, as a society. It may be, in the medium’s short life, a work on celluloid which approaches the realm of great art, standing monolithic next to so many paltry measurements of twenty-one grams. The final images of a weary son walking alone, along the same paths on which he carried his mother only hours before, have never failed to reduce me to tears. God reigns in those ominous clouds and that ubiquitous crack of distant thunder, neither tender, nor calloused, just infinite. The image of solitude, Sokurov’s Son speaks for all of us “head” people, when he finally succumbs to the emotions his intellect so fervently denies. In the end, it is there that he finds the strength to move beyond reason and finally take his mother’s withered hand. “We will meet where we agreed,” he whispers to her, upon returning to her bedside where she lays, lifeless. “There, ok? Wait for me. Be patient, dear mother. Wait for me.”