In John Keats’ haunting poem about the elusiveness of perfect love, ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ (translation: “The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy”), the poem’s main conduit, the Knight, recounts a wondrous tryst with a mysterious faerie queen: a femme fatale, the “Belle Dame sans Merci” of the poem’s title. Starting and ending with the Knight in a limbic condition “on the cold hill’s side”, Keats’ sensuous ballad captures the Knight’s fleeting immersion in the “full beautiful” allure of his female muse before she abandons him. In so many ways, Keats’ poem is an uncanny echo of the theoretical concerns and cyclical structure Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky was to effect on his epic science fiction picture, Solaris (1972), which is getting a much deserved Criterion Collection DVD release this week.
Like all great artists working in science fiction, Tarkovsky really saw the genre as one great “MacGuffin”. Whether Tarkovsky was hugely enamoured of the science of space exploration is questionable, but what he was interested in exploiting was its philosophical and evolutionary significance. Following a lineage of renowned auteurs having at least one “go” at the sci-fi genre – think Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Tarkovsky exploited the near infinite storytelling canvas of future scientific and technological possibilities to fashion one of his epic meditations on what it means to be human.
In fact, apart from its trappings of genre, Solaris’ musings on love, temporality and landscape are remarkably similar to Tarkovsky’s superficially opposite followup, Mirror (1975). The director’s complete lack of interest in the exposition of Solaris’ sci-fi universe is betrayed by a sudden cut at the 40-minute mark: Tarkovsky judders his story from its languorous opening stretch – where cosmonaut Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) has been wandering listlessly around his homestead – to his arrival at the space station orbiting the planet of Solaris. This cut literalises Tarkovsky’s desire to propel his narrative to its meaty thematic heart. Compare this to Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014), where the director seems quite happy to scaffold his profundities with many more superfluous, though genre-pleasing, tropes of action and spectacle.
What Tarkovsky wants to compel Kelvin towards is the centrepiece of the narrative: a meeting with the spectre of his dead wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). For Solaris’ sci-fi conceit is that the mysterious ocean planet of Solaris uses its membranous properties to extract the subconscious thoughts of any nearby sentient beings. Thus Solaris is like one big psychoanalytical machine – projecting a person’s repressed emotions (usually in the form of absent or deceased loved ones) back as direct replicas or “visitors”.
The genius of Tarkovsky’s storytelling is that he has withheld any backstory about Kelvin up to this point in the narrative (although Kelvin’s desolation would be intuited from the opening section). This delaying of the story’s profound sentimental undertow (mirroring Kelvin’s own suppression of his grief) is then outed in a scene of staggering skill and beauty when Kelvin awakes from his first sleep on the station to be encountered by the seemingly incarnate form of his dead wife. It really is one of the great cinematic entrances.
Just as Keats used the pathetic fallacy of his traumatised Knight being shrouded in an eternal winter, while clinging to the brief summer reverie of his “belle dame”, so Tarkovsky exercises a masterful shift in colour and film stock to sensualise the return of Hari. Kelvin falls disconsolately asleep, in a dull monochrome canvas, before Tarkovsky startlingly cuts to a subjectified perspective (Hari) caressing the prone form of her husband. Then, beautifully, Tarkovsky cuts to a silhouetted, partly obscured, profile shot of Hari, shrouded in the luminous golden rays reflecting from the planet Solaris outside the station.
It hearkens in look and meaning to Madeline’s epochal transformation into Judy in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and to the significance of the alluring “Rita” to Naomi Watts’ Betty/Diane in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). In both those films, much like with Tarkovsky’s Hari in Solaris and Keats’ faerie child in “La Belle Dame sans Merci”, the filmmaker/poet uses the iconography of the femme fatale as commentary on the ill-fated, impossible gaze of the traumatised dreamer.
The conception of Hari also bears some resemblance to Rachel in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). In both films, the woman is only a replicant, a copy, and one of the most moving strands of Solaris and Blade Runner is the female character’s growing understanding of her own inauthenticity and the threat she poses to her enraptured male lover. In Solaris, this takes the form of a heartbreaking scene where Hari encounters her own photographic image.
It is almost an anti-Lacanian moment, as Hari is unable to recognise and conceive of herself. Devoid of history, she has to ask Kelvin why she is there, in a sense realising that her identity only exists through deconstructing her husband’s colossal grief. This becomes a strand that develops further when Hari takes to more drastic means to protect Kelvin from her presence and memory. In doing so though, she only accentuates his trauma – as he is forced to relive her death time and time again.
Just as Keats’ femme fatale seems to materialise out of the pastoral bloom of nature, Hari is linked metaphorically, and by Tarkovsky’s editing, to the ethereal properties of the Solaris ocean. Tarkovsky’s insistent gaze on the luminescence of Solaris has faint echoes of Terrence Malick’s epic evolution montage in The Tree of Life (2011). In both films, the question is the same: How was grace born out of this seemingly elemental matter? Where does love come from?
Looking back at the opening scenes of Solaris, Kelvin’s absorption in some form of existential morass can be seen as foreshadowing Hari’s return. There are the willowy reeds swaying agonisingly beneath the lake’s surface, and when Kelvin enters the station orbiting Solaris, the vapour from his shuttle swirls anthropomorphically away as it is sucked down a void.
And it is this sense of a void that puts the cap on Solaris’ musings on love and loss, and links back to Keats’ seminal ballad on the transience of mortal bliss. Just as ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ captured its male lover on a cyclical journey of despair to pleasure, and back to despair, so Solaris finishes with Kelvin seemingly safely back on terra firma. He appears to have returned to the pastoral homestead where the narrative began until a startling pan out from Tarkovsky frames Kelvin in greater context. It establishes him in his own, self-enforced emotional abyss, a mise en abyme, forever moored to the elusive quest for his dead wife. Keats’ closing lines in ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ could have been a suitable epitaph for this final image of Solaris:
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.