Kian Bergstrom reviews “Solaris” on Cine-File’s weekly list

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In Tarkovsky’s luminescent and beautiful adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel, Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, has been sent to a space station orbiting the mysterious planet Solaris, which is covered entirely by a potentially sentient ocean. Kelvin is to take charge of the station and either close it down or take drastic, violent measures against the ocean in order to generate scientific data. When he arrives, though, he discovers that the station is regularly populated with ‘visitors,’ people seemingly generated out of thin air while one sleeps, who are manifestations of one’s own memories and dreams. In adapting Lem’s book, Tarkovsky develops a complex structure of flashbacks, dream sequences, and fantasies that are at times indistinguishable from the ‘actual’ events of the plot, and alternates between color and black-and-white cinematography to further alienate us from the narrative flow. The way he shoots Natalya Bondarchuk, uncannily incandescent in nearly every shot as she ethereally wafts through the sets, is in direct conflict with the staid, weathered and deeply conflicted Donatas Banionis, questioning her very existence. While the novel is set solely on the space station, Tarkovsky developed a crucial prologue set on Earth, in which the philosophical and aesthetic issues are introduced that will later play out in dramatic form. It is there that Burton appears, a retired scientist who is the only one we meet to have actually returned from the mysterious planet. It is Burton who gives voice to a potential thesis of the film, that “knowledge is only valid when it is based on morality,” when he learns of the potentially destructive nature of Kris’ mission. Burton’s shadow hangs low over the film, over the violence that the story heaps on the body of Hari, Kelvin’s lost love reborn. If Burton is right, what are we to make of Kelvin’s own understanding of his relationship with her, which is based on betrayal and pain?  What conclusions are we to draw on the apparent attempts by Solaris itself to study the scientists by means of the ‘visitors,’ when their inevitable result is heartbreak?  Late in the film, the camera lingers on a print of Breughel’s “Hunters in the Snow,” a painting that seems to imply that the titular hunters, instead of returning home empty-handed, are instead on the trail of the ice-skating children in the distance. It is an invocation of the untamable nature of violence, which once released can never be controlled. Kelvin’s reaction to his first ‘visitor,’ the first appearance of Hari, is to attempt to destroy her. Breughel’s hunters with their ambiguous target are mocking commentaries on Kelvin’s own predetermined failure as a scientist and as a human being. Like them, his inability to come to terms with his own nature leads him to lash out against those closest to him, and in so doing to destroy himself. When, in the end, he returns to a heavily ironic homecoming with his surely deceased father, it is with a sense not of a journey completed, but of a cycle repeated, with inevitable tragedy and with inescapable loss that he can never come to terms with.

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