The Russian language does not have a definite article. Instead, as with most languages with the same characteristic, the difference between a generalised version of an object and this specific example of an object is largely gleaned through context. But that context is not available for a standalone noun, and here's where we come to the title of Andrei Tarkovsky's fourth feature, Зеркало (transliterated as Zerkalo). Ever since the 1975 was first shown in the West (which took a few years, owing to its highly divided critical reception in the Soviet Union during a virtually non-existent release), sources have dithered on whether to call it, in English, The Mirror, or just plain Mirror, and I think the difference between the two is important. I do not know how a Russian speaker would interpret the title, but I'd guess it's one of those tiny little ambiguities that make art more pleasurably mysterious, like the way that "histoire" can be used to blur the distinction between "story" and "history" in French. In rude, blunt English, there's no way to preserve that, but I'll come down in favor of just plain Mirror, with no article: the film is so invested in slipperiness and ambiguity, fragments that seem to float across our perception without allowing themselves to be pinned won, and the sense that everything we're watching is as amorphous to its creator as it is to us, if not more so, that it would feel presumptuous to try to pin it down and make it concrete as THE Mirror. It is purposely indistinct and indefinite, something that you can approach but never directly arrive at, like how you can see a star brighter when you're not looking straight at it. Just Mirror, then: a concept of a mirror, the most abstracted idea of what mirrors do, untethered and free-floating.

I admit that this is in part just me being up to my usual bullshit, but on the other hand, I think it's important to know how to approach the film, and titles are after all the first thing we approach. Mirror is a memory piece; it is, I would go so far as to say, the memory piece, the film about the subjective experience of how human memory is (dis)organised that every other film about memory strives to be and cannot quite reach. It is also one of the most elusive and consciously unstable films that I think I have ever seen: the most challenging of all Tarkovsky's films, which puts it high in the running for the most challenging narrative film ever made (if indeed "narrative" is the right word, but lets stick with it). And on the flipside, it's not all that challenging at all, since "challenge" suggest that it can be fully unpacked and in some fashion "solved", and I don't think that was Tarkovsky's intention whatsoever. It is a film that makes some kind of perfect intuitive sense, even if I would never dare try to articulate what that sense is; I suspect it changes not merely based on the viewer, but based on the viewer's own state of mind when they sit down to watch it.

Mirror is the result of a decade of work, beginning in 1964 (when the filmmakers had only one feature to his name, 1962's Ivan's Childhood), when Tarkovsky came up with the idea of a film as the document of the memories and dreams of a man we'd never see. He and the playwright Aleksandr Misharin (his friend and neighbor) turned the idea into a screenplay in a burst of activity in 1968, but the screenplay itself (then called Confession, among other working titles) was never meant to reflect the final form of the project; Tarkovsky openly declared that he himself wouldn't know what film he was making until he was actually in the midst of making it. That clearly wasn't going to work for the censors, who turned the script down flat, leading the director to make the much safer, simpler genre film Solaris (with a cameo role for Misharin) which itself turned into something of a laboratory for the ideas that the writers had been trying to play with in the Confession script. I assume it was that film's success that led to Tarkovsky getting the greenlight to turn that project into a film at last; at any rate, he hadn't turned it into anything softer or more comprehensible, hence its quasi-release in '75 and subsequent burial.

To be fair to the nervous film officials, Mirror is absolutely not a film for all tastes, though I don't know if I could possibly describe the kind of tastes it aligns with. The thing is, there's simply no other film like it. Every other Tarkovsky feature still has a line of descent that you could point to and say "yeah, it's that kind of movie", even if Tarkovsky is enough of a singular visionary to transform them all into unique objects. So, Andrei Rublev is both a '60s historical epic and a biography of religious doubt that echoes the likes of Dreyer and Bresson, Solaris is the anti-2001, The Sacrifice is a Bergman pastiche. Mirror, though, is comparable to nothing at all. The only work of art in any medium that I think gets even close to what it's doing is James Joyce's 1939 Finnegans Wake, but even that's more useful as an example of what Tarkovsky's not doing; Mirror is intuitive and intimate where Finnegans Wake is sprawling and cosmic.

As for the actual content of Mirror: it's sort of about Alexei, who is sort of a stand-in for Tarkovsky himself, and it's sort of about his mom, and it's sort of about solid Soviet ideals of Motherhood and Patriotism as evoked through the mother and plot points about surviving World War II with indefatigable Russian dignity, but also sort of about how those ideals are constructs that don't fit onto reality. Simpler, maybe, to simply focus on what's inside of it: we meet Alexei as a child (Filipp Yankovsky) in the 1930s, and as an adolescent (Ignat Daniltsev) during the war, and we don't meet him, but we hear him, as an adult (Innokenty Smoktunovsky). We also meet his mother, Maria (Margarita Terekhova) in the first two time periods, and his ex-wife Natalia (also Margarita Terekhova) and adolescent son Ignat (also Ignat Daniltsev) in the third (when we briefly meet Maria in this period, she's played by Tarkovsky's mother, Maria Vishnyakova). We hear an unidentified man reciting poetry that reflects the emotional state of the scenes they accompany, without directly corresponding to it (the reciter is the celebrated poet Arseny Tarkovsky, the director's father, reading his own poems).

The nice thing about Mirror is that there's no real risk of turning it into a puzzle to solve and thus robbing the life out of it: it's really only possible to list out its ingredients as I've done and simply ponder them. The three time frames of the film are intercut without the slightest care for chronology, and there's not enough continuity within them to state with any confidence that they describe their own plotlines; they're simply events passing by, in the order that Aleksei thinks of them or that Tarkovsky and Misharin think of them for him.

I think this is because the film isn't trying to tell us anything in particular about Aleksei, or about Maria, both of whom remain surfaces to look upon rather than personalities to dissect. I will say, though, that Terekhova, faced with an impossible acting challenge, gives an extraordinary performance/pair of performances, subtly delineating between her two versions of Maria to let us see the increasing desperation and panic she faces as she tries to raise her children alone in a miserable time, and much more openly approaching Natalia as a completely different person, harder and more ground down by the sheer impossibility of life and the uselessness of the vacant Aleksei. Her performance keeps the dual-casting motif from simply turning into pure symbolism, but instead allowing us to see how the last pair of relationships echo the earlier ones without replicating them.

The point being, while Terekhova's work is amply appreciated, Mirror isn't a film about distinct, individual people going about specific events in their lives, but about how we assemble our sense of our own history through a series of fuzzy memories that combine to make up "our history". There are some moments that emerge as distinct and historically informed, such as an early moment in which Maria is terrified to realise that she has allowed a mistake to enter her work at a printing press, and rushes to fix it (a scene suffused with the paranoia of life in the Soviet Union in the '30s that never once has to state what it's doing), or a combat training sequence that suggests the degree to which death was simply part of the constant mental landscape of a Soviet adolescent in the '40s. Other moment seem to stand out precisely because they are unexceptional, offering snatches of everyday life that stand out for no obvious reason at all.

What unifies all of these moments is their impressionistic feeling. The images shot by cinematographer Georgi Rerberg (in his first of two collaborations with the director) have a decidedly unrealistic feeling: we always know that we're watching the artistic impression of events rather than events themselves. This is part because of the unconventional choice to shoot the film in the boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio, which makes everything seem very open and airy at the top, in a manner that's so odd for cinema of this or any period that it starts to feel like we're not even looking at a movie, but some undiscovered new visual medium.

Even more than this, Mirror makes extraordinary use out of its moving camera and the long takes that allow that movement to slowly unfold itself. The camera is unusually obvious and present here; it lacks the otherworldly smoothness of Steadicam (which had not yet been invented), but seems to drift weightlessly through spaces, slowly floating by characters and rooms in a manner that always calls attention to the fact that we are distinctly separate from them. It calls attention to how the camera serves as an artistic perspective, a way of guiding us through these disconnected scenes to that we understand emotionally what relationship the perceiver (Tarkovsky, I guess?) has to these moments. It feels like wandering through a museum display, perhaps, physically present with the objects and individuals we see but not part of the same world as them - we are observing, curiously turning this way and that as we observe, but too removed form the elements in front of the lens for them to seem real and present.

The result of all this - the floating imagery, the inability to crack open the characters' skulls, the total lack of any obvious strategy for when we move around chronologically or why - combines to give Mirror its feeling of tumbling through memory. The sense we get is that Aleksei, in trying to make sense of himself and his life, is grabbing at every fragment of his past self that he can, latching on the individual moments, words, or images that were striking enough to encode themselves deep in his psyche, whether or not the reason they were so striking is at all clear to him or to us. We are watching him try to assemble himself as collection of important things that happened, and I honestly don't even know if he succeeds, or if it matters whether or not he does so. What matters is the process, the reminder that what we think of as "our memory" is a collection of dreamlike hallucinations that we have forced into a unified shape - not as a way of therefore saying that memory is "false", but that it is amorphous and diffuse, something both comforting and unimaginably remote. It is a dazzling, somber kaleidoscope, full of individually gorgeous and troubling moments (often simultaneously, as in its sequence of a burning barn), whose subject is neither Aleksei nor Tarkovsky nor anybody, but the unfathomable mysteries of human perception.