Among the many highlights of Marcel Proust’s magnum opus In Search of Lost Time is the death 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. The brilliance of Mother and Son is how it turns perspective and perception against us. Inspired by 19th century German painter, Caspar David Friedrich, this 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. 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.”
Full review at Slant Magazine.
Image: Sunflowers, © Jan McCartney, 2011