Andrei Tarkovsky’s is very much a wet cinema, and Solaris (1972), his first foray into science fiction, newly available on blu-ray from Criterion, represents his densest and most haunting use of water, not only as an elemental motif, but as a fundamental narrative resource. Inspired by (though far from beholden to) the novel of the same name by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris finds its baffled protagonist, a psychologist of clinical demeanor named Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), on a space station hovering over the oceanic surface of the eponymous distant planet, a planet that seems to be delivering to its visitors resurrected figures from their past. The waters of Solaris are a source of life, or rather deathlessness. Kris is visited and revisited by his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who suicided some ten years ago. Her memories are initially so miniscule that she’s even surprised by her own face in the mirror, but very quickly the old/original Hari’s memories accumulate. At first Kris tries to get rid of her, but she just comes back. Like the lovers of Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Kris and Hari appear to be condemned to (or blessed with) a closed circuit of eternal return, at least for as long as Kris stays within Solaris’ inscrutable orbit.
Solaris was my first Tarkovsky, and its lulling opening images of a pond and its undulating vegetation leave deep impressions on me still. That first half-hour or so, an earthbound prologue entirely absent from Lem’s book, set in and around Kris’ family’s dacha, impart a vital sense of Tarkovsky’s attachment to nature just before he launches his (and our) imagination into space. A sudden shower passes through the countryside as Kris wanders the dacha’s grounds, while the sun continues to beam down and cast objects in a dewy glow. Children play in the woods. A horse ambles around. Though a city of cold, teeming freeways lays somewhere nearby, though this seems to be a world made of men largely suffering in the absence of women, we get the impression that this is close enough to paradise—as close as we’ve any right to. Before Kris leaves on his mission he starts a small fire outside the dacha and begins burning piles of old research notes and personal items. In a sense he’s taking his memories and turning them into smoke and ash, yet these memories will soon be resurrected through the mysterious formative powers of Solaris’ oceans. The two scientists left on Solaris, already more than familiar with the phenomenon that will afflict the newcomer, suggest that these needy, tactile ghosts, or “guests,” as they refer to them, have “something to do with conscience.” Are they referring to guilt over decades-old wrongdoings or guilt over their more recent bombarding of the Solaris ocean with radiation, which they say prompted the first apparitions? There is also the suggestion, made not by the scientists so much as by Tarkovsky himself, that whether Solaris is explored further or simply abandoned, some trace of those who came to it will remain, perhaps as tiny islands upon which memories replay themselves over and over again.
Solaris features images and ideas that continue to alternately fascinate, frighten and move me. Tarkovsky’s trademark expansive tracking shots and elliptical storytelling only heighten the film’s potency. The only flaws that stick with me after seeing it again arise from Tarkovsky’s disinterest in the allure of outer space (could he not have done a little more with the journey to Solaris?) and from Banionis’ performance, which feels lacking or vague, occasionally coming off more as that of an actor at a loss as to what he’s to be doing than it does as that of a character tormented by inexplicable events and a resurgence of dormant emotions. (Still, Banionis has the sort of face that rewards lingering shots, and looks kind of great while stumbling around the derelict space station in his underpants and monogrammed pajama top.) At one point a character echoes what were surely the sentiments of the film’s director when he says: “We don’t need other worlds. We need a mirror.” The enduring enigma and poetry of Tarkovsky’s work can be located in its capacity to hold up a mirror to the human soul and stir its murkiest existential questions, and in the curious case of Solaris, that mirror actually covers the surface of an entire world.