not in our stars, but in ourselves
April 4th would have been Andrei Tarkovsky’s 84th birthday, so I’ve been thinking about him all week. I didn’t really know much about him as a person up to now; no surprise, his life was intense, with strong dashes of tragedy. He consistently grappled with Soviet authorities, who wanted to censor his deeply personal, poetic films. Eventually, he grew so exasperated that he left the U.S.S.R. – and his son, who was then barred from leaving the country until (presumably) international pressure led to the Soviets allowing the younger Tarkovsky to visit his father, who was dying of lung cancer. (Conspiracy theorists speculate that the Soviets poisoned Tarkovsky, his wife, and his star, while they were shooting Stalker – as they all died of the same kind of lung cancer. Wouldn’t put it past them, but we’ll leave that to one side for now.) It seems appropriate, in a horrible and tragic way, that someone as sensitive and spiritual as Tarkovsky would find himself forced into exile, especially from a country as repressive and black-and-white as Soviet Russia. While Solaris was produced before all of that, I find something awfully moving in considering what happened to him against what happens in the film.
Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is a psychologist who’s about to travel to a space station orbiting the oceanic planet of Solaris. On his last day before he leaves, he tries to take in every detail of the land around his father’s estate; every detail of his father, who will likely be dead by the time he returns; every detail of the family dog; in other words, every detail of life on earth. While he’s spending time with his father and aunt, former cosmonaut Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) comes to show Kris a film. It’s footage of an inquiry that was held after Burton returned from Solaris: Burton swears that he saw a four-meter tall infant on the ocean’s surface, and claims that he filmed it, but the footage shows only clouds and water. It seems that Solaris causes the humans in the space station to hallucinate, but Kris has his doubts. He travels to the station, where he expects to meet three other cosmonauts. The one he knows, Gilbarian, has killed himself. The remaining two, Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn), are nearly deranged. The space station is run-down and messy. Snaut emphasizes that there are only three of them in the space station – but Kris finds, to his great shock, his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) in his room. She doesn’t know how she got there, or what happened to her, so Kris explains that he had left her about ten years ago, after their marriage had become tense and difficult. He remembered that he’d left some sort of poison behind, and went to see if Hari was all right, but he was too late: she had killed herself. Kris realizes, with Hari apparently back, that he loves her terribly and would rather stay here with her ghost than return to earth – but it’s too late. Hari asks Snaut and Sartorius to kill her with the “annihilator” – the only thing that can destroy the Solaris-created apparitions – so Kris is alone again. Solaris ceases to send apparitions after that; instead, islands begin popping up all over the planet. Kris seems to want to return home to earth, but when he’s reunited with his father’s country estate, his dog, and his dad, he realizes that he’s just on an island on Solaris.
I grant you: I am not exactly the most knowledgeable cinephile in the world. Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other director who so skillfully transmits passion to the screen. Please understand: I’m not talking about sex. I think that Tarkovsky considered passion in spiritual terms – as do I, as did Nabokov, as do all the best people – and he treats it with that kind of importance and respect in Solaris. What is the only thing that animates Kris, the only thing that shakes him out of his decade-long sleepwalk? His passion for Hari. Being able to feel her, hear her, speak with her, make love to her again – it awakens him like an epiphany. When she asks him why she killed herself, he says it must be because she knew he didn’t love her; but after she died, in the ten lonely and empty years since, he’s come to realize that he loved her, loves her, will always love her.
That’s the other strain running through all this passion, and it’s what gives it such power: grief. Whether literally or figuratively, Kris has been alone for a very long time. From the end of his trouble marriage to his wife’s suicide, from his painful departure from his father to his time in space, he’s been starved for contact, for intimacy, for warmth. He has lived with his grief for a decade without acknowledging it as such. When Hari re-enters his life – and then, when she leaves it again – the full force of what he’d been missing all these years hits him like a truck. This isn’t only about Kris, though: Hari, the apparition, the ghost, the not-quite-human being, is torn apart by grief, too. She exists because Solaris has extracted her from Kris’s memories. As a result, she exists only as Kris knew and loved her. She has no identity of her own, no will of her own, no impulse or drive beyond being Kris’s love. As Snaut explains, the longer these Solaris “guests” hang around with real humans, the better they get at understanding – and the more Hari understands, the more despondent she becomes. What does it mean if you exist solely for one other person in complete isolation? What does it mean when that other person carries heavy, horrible guilt for what happened to you? How do you feel? What do you do? What can you do?
As tragic as Solaris is in the end, it’s also a film of surpassing beauty. Early in the film, when Kris is taking in his father’s estate, there are exquisite sequences of aquatic plants undulating in the river, of meadows of flowers; and, most rapturously, of Kris remaining outside when a sudden rainstorm hits. Everyone else goes inside, leaving the afternoon tea behind on the deck, where Kris sits. It’s easy to understand why he would remain there, watching the rainwater pour into the cup of tea: just experiencing earth and rain and air and water and fire one last time before he goes to the airless tin can that is the space station. And late in the film, after Hari has come to terms with her status as a non-human projection of Kris’s memories, after she’s realized the hopelessness of her being in love with him, the two of them begin to float around the station’s library, during a brief thirty-second period of weightlessness following some sort of reboot of the station. They hold hands – Kris makes sure she doesn’t float too far away – and it’s such a gorgeous moment, even as it signals their doom: slow-moving Paolo and Francesca, gently tossed around the room by the inutility of their own love. It can’t last – but nothing can.