Thursday 5 March 2020

Great Wine Moments In Movie History XI: Solaris

Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) has become a one-film industry in its own right. Thousands of words have been written about it; thousands of hours spent debating its meaning and significance. It's Will Self's favourite film, but don't let that put you off. It's up there with A Bout De Souffle and Touch of Evil in cineaste culture. I saw it for the first time only the other day, so my take on it is still relatively innocent; although it's hard to shake off the feeling that Solaris is the kind of film enjoyed by people who don't really enjoy anything that much.

What's it about? In brief, this: strange goings-on (hallucinations, suicide) on board an elderly Russian space station floating above the planet Solaris require psychologist Kelvin to pay a visit and sort things out. When he gets there he finds the station tatty, mildly chaotic, the two remaining crew members (Snaut and Sartorius) in a state of deep, listless, alienation. He also discovers his wife, who actually committed suicide some years earlier. Not his actual wife, of course, but a projection of his memory of his wife, embodied by the psychically invasive planet above which the space station hovers. Hari - the wife - becomes increasingly real to Kelvin. Despite his efforts to kill her off and her own efforts to kill herself, again, she persists in hanging around to the point where the two rediscover their love for each other, or at least their love for an other which may or may not be the other. At the same time an accomodation must be reached with the sentient planet. Also, what is the meaning of space exploration? And what is the meaning of human? Is the film about the inevitability of repeating past mistakes? It's very Russian.

But here's the thing: in the course of a nearly three-hour movie, no-one on the space station eats or drinks a damn thing except at a melancholy party to celebrate Snaut's birthday. And what do they consume? Apart from the odd cigarette? Red wine. Why wine? It must mean something, because everything means something in Solaris

What is clear is that the wine accompanies an outburst by the misanthropic Sartorius, who reduces the luminously beautiful Hari to tears by reminding her that however real she may think she feels she is, she is no more than a representation of Kelvin's past and therefore has no existence. Shortly afterwards, she tries to kill herself. Again. It is one of the pivotal sequences - although every sequence might as well be a pivotal sequence, for that matter - and it has some red, not a burgundy, judging by the shape of the bottle, maybe a nice Dagestan, poured into crystal glassware. Tarkovsky was a deeply convinced Christian. A biblical, sacremental kind of wine? But Tarkovsky also disdained mere symbolism, the freighting of one thing with another's allegorical purpose. So perhaps not.

But it is red wine, after all, and nothing this colour inhabits the camera's field of view without some justification. Is it there merely to signal a lowering of inhibitions to the point where Sartorius can deliver himself of his thoughts? Man needs man, says Snaut, on his way to getting properly plastered. You're not a woman and you're not a human being, says Sartorius to Hari, a minute or so later, you're just a reproduction. A candelabrum crashes to the floor. 

Alex Garland's Ex Machina, from 2014, deals with similar ideas (handful of people in the middle of a futuristic nowhere, beautiful android girl crosses the line from machine to human) but the only booze in that movie appears to be designer vodka, in keeping with the affectless geeky modernity of the production. Or tequila. Either way, there's no visual impact if you use a clear beverage. Only red wine is emblematic of our shared humanity. Or maybe that's the point with the transparent vodka/tequila; maybe that's precisely the point in Ex Machina. And why aren't the Russians drinking vodka on the space station, it's the drink which fuelled a nation? Exactly. It has to be red wine. The characters in Solaris were dogged by disappointments, Tarkovsky later wrote, and the way out we offered them was illusory enough. I think, in the end, we all know what he means.


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