Film & TV Muse

MUSE Film Club— Solaris

Sophia Ash explores the unsettling dreamscape of Andrei Tarvosky's Solaris

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Image Credit: Contemporary Films

A haunting vision tackling notions of delusion and reality, Solaris is a film suffused in an illusory glaze, made of scenes that flit between chaos and stillness. It follows the melancholic psychologist Kris Kelvin, who is sent to a space station in order to investigate the mental issues of the cosmonauts there, only to find that the planet they orbit harnesses a strange ability to coax out repressed memories and obsessions. The atmosphere is undeniably dream-like in quality, though overshadowed with something strangely morbid… hallucinations, unutterable events... much is left to the imagination. Through this ambiguity, Tarkovsky plays with notions of interiority and exteriority, crafting a world fraught with perceptual insecurity, where we remain uncertain as to how much of it is merely delusion.

The conflict between the internal and the external is displayed through hallucinations that haunt the minds of those aboard the ship, where the planet they circulate has the ability to reproduce humans based on the memories of those nearby. This results in strange embodiments of beings; people who appear human, though hold an existence that is painfully restricted, living as projections of memories, and existing outside the boundaries of mankind. Though these inexplicable hallucinations stem from the human mind, they interact viscerally with the external world. And when the deceased wife of Kelvin first emerges, his initial instinct is to kill her in an intense bout of hysteria brought on by the suffocating grief her death reawakens him to. Overwhelmed by the irrationality of her reappearance, he enters a state of psychological disarray, unable to fathom her reemergence. But when it becomes apparent that she is unkillable, he clings to this figment of his wife, succumbing to his longing for the past in a tragic depiction of humanity’s inability to let go. It is through this impenetrable interaction that Tarkovsky crafts a delicate examination of the human condition, exploring our inherent need for connection; as Dr. Snaut states, “Man needs man.” And yet it seems these connections that are striven for don’t necessarily have to be between tangible people; … Kelvin is able to cling to figments of the mind, false creations, even in his awareness of their falsity.

Through this exploration of human connection, there emerges a poignant examination of the complexities of identity, illustrated through shifting and non-linear relationships between people as well as time and memory. Tarkovsky demonstrates an uncompromising willingness to confront these fundamental issues of human existence, propelling us to ask the same questions of ourselves. Can we really know another person? How vast is the discrepancy between who these people really are and how much of our own naive perceptions we project onto them? Hari’s dual identity is reflective of these troublesome issues, representing the precarious gap between what it means to be human. “I don’t know myself at all,” she laments. And when she attempts to kill herself, it seems that it is only because that’s what it felt like she was destined to do. Kelvin’s wife met her tragic end through suicide, and so she in turn feels compelled to play out the same steps in a profound confusion of autonomy. Hari seems to hang in a state of liminality, suspended between being human and being tragically detached, to the extent that she represents this cataclysm of identity. It seems that humans are characterised by their free will, and perhaps this is what distinguishes Hari from the rest of mankind; though she looks and acts as a human would, and appears to have agency, there is something incredibly stifling in her existence… she seems to be running on a perpetual treadmill, afflicted by a kind of confusion of identity that prevents her from ever becoming fully integrated amongst humans.

This ontological instability is reinforced through the alternation between colour and monochromic shots, displaying a world in which everything hangs in precarious balance. It is a world crafted on the threshold between being and nonbeing, dream and reality, earth and space. A world in which the distinction between the tangible and the intangible becomes increasingly ambiguous as the hallucinations embed themselves more viscerally into reality. This state of suspension is epitomised by the ethereal floating sequence where Kelvin and Hari defy gravity in their suspended embrace, a physical representation of the slowly diminishing boundaries between reality and delusion. There is something faintly biblical in this other-worldly scene, where their floating embrace reflects the tragic disjunction of their relationship; it is not grounded and earthly, but something that transcends the limits of time and space, something that can only belong to a place far removed from the limitations of earth. This only heightens our sense of the fragility attached to their connection, initiating a sense of foreboding for what is to come of their unearthly bond.

Another interaction explored throughout the film is that between sleep and death, a notion masterfully tied in with the movie’s dream-like aspect. “There is only one bad thing about a sound sleep... They say it closely resembles death.” Sleep is explored as a kind of death, though death itself is inescapably tied to torments of the human psyche;. It is not a physical, foreseeable death,  brought on by age or illness, but rather a death by fear, by despair, and by shame. And with Hari’s eventual annihilation it seems that it is more the psychological impression that we are left with, for we never witness her ‘death.’ Throughout the film, we are lulled into a false sense of security in believing that she is unable to die, and so when she eventually does, this only further destabilizes our notions of what is possible in this unfathomable world. Hari’s apparent inability to die in her ‘living state’ meant that she was confined to this half-life, unable to escape it and cease her existence both in the sense we are familiar with, and in the death through sleep concept we are introduced to. She is unable to sleep, and this further limitation seems to signal the rift between her and the human condition... Perhaps for Tarkovsky, humanity is characterised by its ability to sleep, and to dream. But though Hari lacks the ability to sleep, she can feel, and perhaps more deeply than those surrounding her, prompting a troublesome notion of what being human has come to mean.

Tarkovsky’s phantasmagorical creation prompts many worrisome questions regarding the human condition, propelling us to examine our own lives through this intensely perceptive lens. Solaris is a hallucination of a film, intent on disturbing our notions of what is real. And by its conclusion, we are left even more uncertain— as we come to realise that even when it appears Kelvin has returned to earth, he is still in fact surrounded by the ocean of Solaris; that enigmatic planet harnessing its strange hallucinatory powers. There is a kind of tragic circularity in Kelvin’s journey, where it seems that he was never able to prevail over these irrepressible hallucinations. Though recognised as a sci-fi film, it is somehow too reductive to categorise Solaris in this way; the film holds too much complexity, too much thought. The unearthly sequences fuse with scenes of psychological disturbance, stringing together a hauntingly poetic expression of humanity and delusion that disrupts any previous conceptions we may have held regarding the nature of the human condition.

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