Monday, March 30, 2009

Mother & Son

Aleksander Sokurov's Mother & Son (1997) seems to take place in a space that falls somewhere between the conscious and unconscious. It is the story of an ailing mother tended to by her son that takes place in a small house in a very rural area of Russia. The mother seems to be on her death bed and even when she is awake it seems that she is never far from slipping back into sleep. The film begins with the mother recounting a dream she just had, which we find out was the same dream that her son had. This establishes a subconscious or metaphysical link between the mother and son, suggesting they inhabit not only the same physical space, but also the same space beyond conscious perception, which is extraordinary for something as personal as a dream. The landscape itself is also very dream-like. Much of it is filmed in soft focus with clouds and mist in the mise-en-scène, giving the film a hazy, ethereal quality. I think perhaps the most important subliminal aspect of the film is the sound. Most of what is heard on the soundtrack is not seen on the screen, so it is ambiguous as to whether the sounds are being created in the offscreen diegetic space of the film or if it is coming from an extra-diegetic source like the characters' imaginations. The film begins with a black screen and the faint sounds of waves breaking on a shore. One would expect then, that the first images on screen would be of the sea. Instead we see the mother laying in bed with her son behind her, gazing into a space off screen. Perhaps the sea is just outside the house and the son is looking at the waves through the window, but we have no idea, since the first few minutes are essentially a tableau, a static shot of the mother and son laying down. The only visual connection we have to the sounds of the waves is the rhythmic rising and falling of the mother's chest as she breathes. In later scenes we learn that the house is not adjacent to the sea, but is surrounded by rolling hills. The house itself is filled with sounds whose immediate source is not apparent. The sounds of a crackling fire are foregrounded in the soundtrack but we don't see the fire, except in a later shot. Even then the fire is relegated to an insignificant corner of the frame, almost inversely proportionate to the importance placed on its sound in the earlier scene. There is also a scene within the house where the buzzing of a fly is extremely loud and prominent within the soundtrack, yet the fly is nowhere to be seen. Outside of the house, the unseen sounds are also the dominant aspect of the soundtrack. There are natural unseen phenomena like wind, which while heard can not itself be seen, but is visually manifested in the images of bent trees and the undulating ripples in the wheat fields. There is also the sound of thunder accompanying the images of low hanging grey clouds. Man made sounds factor in as well. In one scene we hear the whistle of a train and see a plume of white smoke, but the train itself is obscured by a ridge in the landscape. There is also the faint barking of dogs, and the only other sonic evidence of humans is very faint and comes in the form of laughter and song. Since there appear to be no other dwellings nearby, it is unclear whether these sounds are sourced from within the film or within the psyches of the characters.
Mother & Son seems to almost be an antithesis to the early work of Sokorov's countrymen like Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Vertov. Where these directors worked in opposing dialectical images in fast paced rhythmic cuts in the Soviet montage style, Sokorov uses almost exclusively long take photography. That's not to say there is no dialectic tension between the images. Here they are presented within one image on the screen, instead of a series of images like the montage directors. This is a style not unlike Jean-Luc Godard employed in films like Le Week-end and One Plus One which Brian Henderson wrote about in his essay "Towards A Non-Bourgeois Camera Style". He writes that the long takes still require the active participation of the viewer, but not in the way that André Bazin suggests the viewer selects what is important within the space of the frame during the long take. Instead Henderson suggests that "the viewer is not drawn into the image, nor does he make choices within it; he stands outside the image and judges it as a whole". I believe this theory can be applied to the scene in which the train finally makes an appearance in the frame while the son is out walking. He is by himself for once, not having to care for his mother, and the train enters the frame from the right and exits the left side while we watch him from behind as he watches the train. The train is a symbol of modernity, a contrast to the primitive dwelling that the son shares with his mother that lacks running water or electricity. Since the train also requires other people to operate it and would either be full of passengers or goods that would need to be unloaded by other people when it reaches its destination, the train can also be seen as a symbol of life. The son almost seems to be yearning to be on the train, to have it bear him away from his present surroundings. This is also the case in the scene where the mother is carried outside and is laid down on a bench by her son. She is surrounded by verdant plants with a vibrant, saturated green color, the very picture of life, that provide a contrast to her deathly pallor. The shot leading up to this scene also suggests a non-bourgeois camera style, when we see the son carrying his mother from the house to the bench in a long, deep space shot that tracks very slowly to the left. The camera doesn't expressly follow the son, and seems to be almost an impartial observer and if the son happens to walk into the frame, then so be it. The narrative (or what narrative structure there is) also unfolds at an extremely languid pace, almost as if it is taking place through the eyes of a dying person trying to observe every minute detail of this world before moving on to the next.
Another visual aspect of the film that I believe is worth noting that it is quintessentially Russian (rolling green hills, birch trees, rippling fields of wheat) but seems to be in contrast with the Soviet-era communist films with the subject of the mother and son. This pairing seems to be representational of the iconic Madonna and child paintings that were a trademark of the Russian Orthodox churches dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. In this case however, the context is inverted and shows the son grown up and taking care of the mother, who is rendered as helpless as a baby by whatever disease is afflicting her. This is evidenced in the scene where the son actually gives the mother a bottle to suck from, suggesting she is too feeble to even drink from a glass and has reverted to a state of infancy.


Henderson, Brian. "Towards a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style". Film
Theory & Criticism. ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. 6th
edition. Oxford University Press. New York & Oxford, 2006. p. 56.

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