Mother and Son: a repugnant work for dilettantes

13 September 2010

Prompted by a current discussion on the idFilm forum, today I watched Aleksandr Sokurov's 1997 film Mother and Son. The film, which relates the final day of a dying woman tended to by her son, won the Andrei Tarkovsky Award, the Russian Film Critics Award and the Special Jury Prize at the 1997 Moscow International Film Festival and has received considerable praise in wider circles since.

On a strictly formal basis, Mother and Son is immediately inviting. It unfolds at a languorous pace; incidents are few, dialogue is sparse. Its imagery is extraordinary: cinematographer Aleksei Fyodorov utilises a complex combination of lenses, panes and mirrors to distort the natural image into a deeply impressionistic and impressive visual sense that recalls the finest paintings of German Romanticism. The film's soundtrack is manipulated into a heightened surrealism: winds are amplified, whispers fade in and out, music haunts but never overwhelms, as if to replicate the final memories one may feel in the hours before death.

Death looms large in the film. As the eponymous Mother, Gudrun Geyer from the outset is visibly frail, on her last. As Son, Aleksei Ananishov tends to her, comforts her mind, carries her for a 'walk' through the immediate picturesque landscape, itself a painterly evocation of approaching unrest: dark, earthly greens are offset by black clouds and thick fog. As the film goes on, Son explores the area alone, physically disconnected from Mother but haunted by his memories of her, evoked aurally. Framed increasingly in long shot, the land itself engulfs him; as we draw closer to him, his grief is apparent. In the final moments of the film, he returns to the rustic cottage in which he has been tending to his mother; realising that she has died, he holds her close.

It is not difficult to see Mother and Son's appeal. It has a singular visual style and a familiar narrative rhythm: a unique, painterly quality with the kind of post-Tarkovsky looseness that brings with it a certain artistic and moral discretion, a lack of closure, and so on. Elements, in short, that often get termed 'poetic', 'contemplative', 'beautiful'.

Moreover, it's this combination of arresting imagery and slow pacing that allows the viewer to reflect upon whatever subject they wish; fuelled by the former, the sparseness of the latter invites them to project, to 'wander'. Given the lack of this opportunity in much of mainstream cinema due to the need to follow details on a continual basis, Sokurov's film rests safely in that field of 'thought-provoking' art.

That is not to say, however, that the film is thought-provoking, or for that matter that it has much going for it at all. Though it bears several markings of 'contemplative cinema', we should note firstly that in order to engage with material life, art does not need to directly mirror its pace. Secondly, and related to the last point, Mother and Son cannot possibly 'replicate the pace of life' because it in no way resembles it.

The film's fatal error is fundamental, at its conceptual level. The problem isn't its basic subject matter, but that its subject matter has no concrete context within the framework of the film: the unnamed characters are set in an unnamed place at an unnamed time. Their world, captured so vividly, is an impossible idyll; neither character has any social obligation, nor are they given any history. Appraisals of the film do not ignore this fact, they embrace it: without any grounding in material reality, the characters can interact with 'pure, raw emotion'.

It ought to go without saying that this is idealism in both artistic approach and critical response. 'Pure, raw emotion' does not precede material reality. As such, the film is completely vacuous. Without any social context, we have no reason to care for these characters because we have no objective content to which we can attach any lasting meaning. Beyond its formal strengths, any emotional power found in the film must be a result of some self-projection.

If this is not essentialist, utopian film-making, then it is at best simply implausible. Whilst its fundamental lack of content allows the viewer to substitute in their own fantasies and views – neither of which the film precludes – when stripped of these, what you have is 'blank canvas' film-making at its most obvious.
If Sokurov wished to make a piece on rural Russia in a cinematically unique visual language, he needn't have gone to the trouble of hiring these two actors to flesh out such landscapes. As it is, the characters are actually distracting: Mother is an irksome shell of nothing, Son borders on the autistic; without a conscious engagement with reality, all we're left with is the tenuous would-be bond between the two, which can be read as perverse as it can natural.

Similarly, Yuri Arabov's dialogue may be read as empty as much as it may poetic. “People don't live for any particular reason,” Son tells Mother at one point, “but people die for a reason.” “No reason,” she replies, “I have no reason.” We're back to Death, that great mystery. Sokurov's film isn't the first to be preoccupied by this subject, and it doubtless won't be the last, though we should quietly note that even death isn't beyond social existence, and so any rumination on it in this form is simply meaningless: moreover, given that as a fact of life death is more banal than terrifying, Sokurov's film becomes one of those self-privileging works to which many of a certain outlook flock en masse.



By coincidence, I viewed Mother and Son four days after completing David Simon and Ed Burns's book The Corner, which has as one of its central narrative strands the relationship between drug addict Fran Boyd and her drug-selling son DeAndre McCullough. Based on the very real streets of the West Baltimore drugs culture, this rigorous work of journalism floored me; part of its emotional power is the unobtrusive narration of Fran and DeAndre's relationship, which couldn't be any more contextualised against the burdens of history and the overwhelming odds of present society. Grounded in material reality, the work speaks volumes about human life and all that it constitutes; in the aftermath of the Sokurov film, the book is persisting evermore on my mind.