Reflections On The Cinematic Mirror

It’s bath time in Bernardo Bertolucci’s wonderful film, “The Dreamers” (2003), set in 1968 Paris.

By David D. Robbins Jr. 

A mirror is more than just a reflection of ourselves when used well by a great director or cinematographer. It can be the ultimate doppelganger, a vision of the past, a remembrance of what we were. Aesthetically, it can make a small room feel much larger. Or it can accentuate relationships, parallels, and fragmentation. For Lewis Carroll’s Alice, a mirror contained the possibility of a new world. It can suggest duplicity of character through the doubling of images, or it can multiply internal confusion, show arrogance, and highlight depravity. It can be a luxuriant, a seducer, or present an altered reality. In the hands of masters like Douglas Sirk, Martin Scorsese, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, John M. Stahl, Alfred Hitchcock, and Bernardo Bertolucci, it is a profound tool — both informative and beautiful. Of course, there are a number of films that have scenes with mirrors in them. But I’m not talking about random appearances. These are great directors, in great films, using mirrors to paint a complex picture. These aren’t the only films that do this. I’ve only chosen ones that immediately come to mind, and where I can grab a screen capture to illustrate its usage:

Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” (2003): The Mirror as Accentuation
Note the subtle triptych effect as the three main characters take a bath together. The film and the scene are an homage to the famed threesome in François Truffaut’s 1962 film, “Jules Et Jim”, a movie alluded to a number of times in “The Dreamers”. The female lead, Isabelle (Eva Green), is seen in this still-frame as the sexual centerpiece for her brother and her friend. It’s a Freudian kaleidoscope of confused and youthfully inexperienced sexuality. The brother and sister mirror each other in their unruly ways. At one point, the lead character, Matthew notes, “You’re like two halves of the same person.” The mirror accentuates, shows the relationship of the characters. The film takes place in the politically turbulent, free-wheeling days of 1968 Paris, using the student riots and the onset of new wave cinema as its backdrop. The still frame I captured lasts only a second or two before Isabelle slides lithely into the bathtub. As risque as it may look to someone who hasn’t seen the picture, it’s not really a sexually-charged scene. It’s about camaraderie, discovery, and commonality in youth. It’s also a film about growing up, and coming to understand that being an adult comes with a heavy price.

Barbara Sukowa puts on lipstick in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Lola” (1981).

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Lola” (1981): The Mirror as Falsity
“Lola” is the second film in the “BRD Trilogy” about post-war Germany. The still-frame shows the cabaret dancer-prostitute in her lair. The story follows Lola, a corrupt businessman and a seemingly honest one, in 1950s Germany, during the country’s so-called economic boom. But “Lola” shows us a sordid society, where everything from building contracts to sex is up for sale. The bourgeois run rampant with fraud, murder, kickbacks and scams — and no one has clean hands. Fassbinder creates blistering, almost obscene Sirkian color scheme. His neon-lavender, yellow-blue and green background and lighting work much the same way as a mirror, accentuating one thing and its reverse. It’s both beautiful and grotesque. Extravagant and cheap. It’s glamor and excess, art-house and camp kitsch. We see Lola applying lipstick, while a man watches. The mirror presents a type of falsity. It’s where one puts on a face, covering up the reality beneath, just like the businessmen with their false fronts. Fassbinder certainly found inspiration from Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 classic, ”The Blue Angel,” featuring a manipulative lounge singer named Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), who dupes and humiliates an uptight local teacher by making a clown of him.

Giorgio Albertazzi looks at Delphine Seyrig in Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961).

Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961): The Mirror as Fractured Reality
Obviously, the nature of this film’s narrative structure is fragmented, and beautifully confusing. It’s one of the most interesting films ever created. There are scenes so beautiful it’s hard to tell if it is indeed being reflected in a mirror or not. The premise of the film begins at a chateau/hotel. A man approaches a woman and claims to have met her a year before in Marienbad. He says that she is here, waiting for him. The woman claims to have never met the man. The films adds details about the relationship between the man and the woman and her husband. There are repeated voice-overs, phrases, and scenes. (A type of fracturing and multiplying.) Tracking shots follow up and down the corridors of the hotel, winding down ever-changing hallways, with strange and seemingly unrelated actions occurring. The above image is wonderfully shot. It mixes fear, desire, trepidation into a mystifying dream-like sequence of visual repetition. The film plays like feature-length surrealism and M.C. Escher put to celluloid. In some degree, this film is about how we see and what film or photography does to a thing. There is a difference between looking at a thing and seeing a thing. Think about it this way: If there is no mirror in the above scene, and it’s just a man looking at a woman — then it becomes less of an image. There’s a thing, a picture of a thing, and then the iconic or imagery created by artfully capturing a thing. It’s like Rene Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images”, a painting of a pipe with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe) scrawled below it. Yes, it’s a pipe, but not a real one. It’s the idealization of a pipe. It’s the pipe floating on the canvas, just as ideal versions of things float in the mind. In other words, it’s a representation, a stand-in, a signifier — as all films are. All films are idealizations of a life. None of it is real. Films can project ad infinitum, like a mirror within a mirror within a mirror, until you lose yourself in them.

The immeasurably beautiful Gene Tierney in John Stahl’s “Leave Her to Heaven” (1946).

John M. Stahl’s “Leave Her to Heaven” (1946): The Mirror as Narcissism and Beauty
Ellen Berendt (Gene Tierney) looks into a rounded mirror, perfectly caught within its arch. She’s a psychopath. We’ve seen her watch as her husband’s brother drowns. We’ve watched her famously crazy staircase scene. She loved her father to death and reaches from beyond to try and ruin her sister’s life. Within this shot we catch a glimpse of the internal, the infernal and the beautiful. It’s quite possibly Tierney’s best performance. Yes, this shot shows the true face of a woman whose histrionics build into a jealousy so large she dooms anyone in contact with the man she loves. Her type of love, a mix of paranoia and obsession, is a cousin to narcissism. It’s to Stahl’s credit that he uses this scene with the mirror to show Ellen’s dogged determination — the woman behind the mask. Nothing will stand in her way, not even conscience. What’s even more astounding is just how beautiful Tierney was in her day. There are lovely actresses all around from the early silent era, and even up through the 1940s, but Tierney’s beauty even overshadows this vivid Technicolor film with all of its pastels, paisley and flowered patterns of wallpaper and furniture, making all the lush natural locations muted in her presence. Of course, Stahl’s use of mirrors was later picked up by Douglas Sirk in a remake of “Magnificent Obsession” (1954), “Written On the Wind” (1956) and “All Heaven Allows” (1955). Sirk was also an obsession of Fassbinder’s. It’s almost as if this late Stahl film created the scenes that launched a thousand other scenes after it.

A touching scene between Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder in “The Age of Innocence” (1993).

Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” (1993): The Mirror as Relationship
An increasingly distant husband, Newland Archer (Daniel Day Lewis), stands up to greet his wife May (Winona Ryder), as she enters his study. He was reading, and lost in passionate thought about Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). Archer wants to break away from the formality of early New York society, in order to be with the woman he truly loves. The scene is so graceful, like the entire film is, from the opening credits filled with lace to the interior shots of wealthy homes. It’s easy to see the loneliness and distance in this darkened scene. A cold mirror sits between the couple, accentuating their isolation. But notice how they’re also attached by May’s supplicate reflection in the looking glass. In no small degree, it places May in a much higher standing than her husband. Her head is bowed, but higher in relation to Archer when reflected in the mirror. It’s such a subtle touch from Scorcese, suggesting that the hero we’ve come to know intimately may not be as admirable as his wife.  The beauty of the story rests too in how we mirror Archer. Just like Archer, we’ve come to think of May as beautiful, polite, shallow and meek. By the film’s conclusion, we’re as overwhelmed as her husband by her actions and her unconditional love. We too have been unaware of the grace of his wife. There’s another sequence in the film, where Newland sees May in a series of virtual image flashes. She’s upside-down in the camera lens; then righted, then reflected in the eye of the camera; then multiplied into three mirrored images behind her; and finally as a vision of formal Victorian femininity posing in a studio. It’s gorgeous.

Actress Julianne Moore puts on her makeup in a scene from Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” (2009).

Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” (2009): The Mirror as Loneliness
In the large scheme of things, this isn’t an important scene in the film. It’s about a supporting character, Charley, played by Julianne Moore. But I want to start with a description of a scene I didn’t screen capture. It’s the opening. The film takes place in a single day in 1962. We follow the lead character, George (Colin Firth), a middle-aged teacher dealing with the death of his longtime love, Jim. The film begins with a mirrored image of George, dreaming. He’s looking out the window of his home, toward the backyard where we see an image of Jim and happier times. It’s such a sullen, delicate build up to show the audience how devastated George still is. Then there’s an interior shot of George, still looking out toward the backyard, slightly profiled, his own reflection a pale version of himself. After an afternoon of teaching disinterested students, George talks with his friend Charley on the telephone, and they agree that he should come over to her place. Charley tries to project happiness, when in truth, she’s as miserable as George. Notice how she’s surrounded by images of herself. Mirrors within mirrors. Everything about the room suggests order, happiness — from the colors, to the pretty slatted-bamboo view. But it’s all a veneer, no matter how sumptuous the decor or how prettily the makeup is applied. This scene give hints about a woman on the verge of a breakdown, fragmented. Charley and George are partners in a very real, weighted ennui.

Lauren Bacall looks at Robert Stack and Rock Hudson in “Written On the Wind” (1956).

Douglas Sirk’s “Written On the Wind” (1956): The Mirror as the Aesthetic
Admittedly, Sirk is a master of the mirror, using them to add nuance to nearly every movie he’s made. “Written On the Wind” is the story of two friends and their love for the same woman, Lucy Moore (played by Lauren Bacall). Here we see Lucy watching both men, Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) and Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack), the son of a wealthy oil baron. She eventually marries Kyle, but finds him increasingly weak-willed, shiftless, and drunken. What is wonderful about this scene is its arrangement and color scheme. Rich pastels and multi-colored bottles of perfumes, contrast to the other half of the frame with its warm golden glow, wood paneling and beige offsets. Here we see the relationships intermingled in the reflection of a mirror, Wayne looking forward, casual, confident and steady in his brown suit. He’s contrasted with the volatile Kyle, in a solid grey-blue, with his back to the camera view, and in motion. It’s a triangular focus. The use of mirrors is a well-known hallmark of Sirk’s visual style — which also features open windows, shiny surfaces, wild colors, wind (which was used by Stahl in the plot of “Leave Her to Heaven”), frames, doorways, and architectural elements like pillars. Using mirrors can be a dynamic way to isolate characters in a frame. It gives a sort of unconscious prospective. In the above photo, we see that a very stable woman is in the middle of subtle battle between two men. It’s also a view that includes us as a forth observer. Our reflection is theoretical: Which character seems like us? We don’t have an omniscient view. We’re not looking from Lucy’s view or either of the two men. Our POV is as another person in the room, looking at Lucy. It’s a masterful arrangement.

Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant “Vertigo” (1958).

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958): The Mirror as Illusion
Mirrored images abound in “Vertigo” — whether it’s Judy Barton/Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) sitting on a museum bench staring at a portrait of a woman she resembles, or John “Scottie” Ferguson standing atop the bell tower in a pose resembling his falling silhouette in his fever dreams. I remember being deeply moved when I first saw this movie. It wasn’t so much the plot, or twists that awed me, but the scenes with Scottie after his illusion is broken. Hitchcock could have ended the film earlier, with the big reveal, but chose instead to focus on what it means to desire someone, and how illusions are a working of the mind. As far as the plot is concerned, Scottie falls for a woman who really isn’t the woman he thinks. After he believes she has died, he finds this ‘fraudulent’ woman again (at first not knowing who she is), and tries to remake her in her originally phony representation. The ‘real’ Judy falls for Scottie, but by then the dynamic has changed. The scene above shows the ‘real’ Judy, who pretended to be Madeleine (we never see her in the film), looking at herself — but Scottie only sees the Madeleine she used to pretend to be. It’s a lesson about reality, fiction, dreams, and the falsity of idealization. In the mirror is one girl, but Scottie and Judy see vastly different images.

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3 thoughts on “Reflections On The Cinematic Mirror

  1. Reblogged this on CINEMA SHOCK and commented:
    While doing my research on mirrors and reflections in cinema for today’s post, I read this wonderful article by David D. Robbins Jr. It is actually so good, that I decided to reblog it in full length. It covers usage of mirror as Accentuation, Falsity, Fractured Reality, Narcissism and Beauty, Relationship, Loneliness, Aesthetic, Illusion. All accompanied with images and explanations. I hope you’ll like this arcticle as much as I did.

  2. Pingback: How are mirrors employed in films | Rodentia Film Research

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