I first saw Tarkovsky’s Mirror—a film I consistently name as my favorite film of all time—in December 1987, at the Cosmos Theater on the Rue de Rennes in Paris. The Cosmos was a large Art Deco theater that had opened in 1934 as the Lux Rennes and in 1962 had been purchased by Jacques Tati and renamed L’Arlequin. In 1978 it was bought by a company that specialized in imports from the USSR; they changed its name to Le Cosmos and for the next 14 years focused on screening Soviet films. It was during that period that I saw Mirror though I knew none of that history at the time. (In 1992 it was renamed L’Arlequin and still operates under that name today.) The poster above, which I assume dates from the film’s first release in France in 1978, was probably the poster I would have seen outside the theater.
When I first saw Mirror (as it is known in the UK; American distributors and exhibitors favored The Mirror), I knew it was unlike anything I had ever seen and at the same time it felt like everything I wanted in a film. Poetically allusive, arcanely personal, rapturously mysterious, resolutely non-linear, spine-chillingly dreamlike and deeply spiritual, with a soaring soundtrack by Eduard Artemyev and a riveting central performance by Margarita Terekhova, Mirror was two hours of sheer bliss. My young self quickly declared it the greatest film ever made and over the 33 years since nothing has really come close to unseating its place in my personal pantheon. I’m not alone in my love of this film of course: in the 2012 decennial Sight & Sound poll it was voted the 19th greatest film ever made, and the 9th best in the directors poll (it is in the top tens of filmmakers as diverse as Olivier Assayas, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Peter Strickland, Billy Woodberry, Lukas Moodysson, Ann Hui, Jonathan Glazer, Raya Martin, and Agnieszka Holland).
Over the next few years I watched it several times on VHS, but in the ’90s, my first decade in New York, I don’t think it screened once on film. It has screened sporadically since: in 2002 I finally saw it again on 35mm, at Lincoln Center as part of a “Tarkovsky at 70” retrospective, and then again in 2019 at Brooklyn Academy of Music, at a one-off screening as part of a series called On Memory.
I’ve always regretted the fact that my favorite film of all time did not have an iconic poster to match. As far as I can tell there was never a Soviet poster for the film, or at least I’ve never been able to find one. There are a handful of good international posters (and many shockingly banal VHS and DVD covers) but there has never been a poster that quite lives up to the film itself which is strange because the film is a feast of breathtaking imagery with enough visual inspiration for ten campaigns.
Mirror was made in 1974 and released in the USSR in 1975 and in an unusual article written in April of that year in The New York Times, James F. Clarity reported on the film’s reception at its first screenings in Moscow.
“Mirror,” a new film by Andrei Tarkovsky, the controversial and unorthodox Soviet director, is delighting, puzzling, disaping [sic] serious Muscovite movie enthusiasts.The film began showing in two theaters here this week and instantly became the talk of moviegoing intellectuals because, they say, nothing quite like “Mirror” has ever been made before by a Soviet director.
At the end of the article he writes that
“Mirror,” according to the criticism of several of Mr. Tarkovsky's fellow directors, will narrow his audience in the Soviet Union. It could increase his audience and his prestige in the West, if the Soviet authorities permit the film to be shown abroad.
They did not at first. The film was not submitted to Cannes, much to Tarkovsky’s frustration, and it was almost three years before the film was first shown abroad. In a diary entry on March 2, 1975, a few days before it opened in the Soviet Union, Tarkovsky wrote: “Why did Ermash [Filipp Ermash, the head of the state production authority Goskino] not let Mirror go to Cannes? . . . Why am I not told about invitations from foreign firms to make films? . . . Why is Mirror not being distributed?”
While it finally opened in much of Europe in 1978 and ’79, it didn’t make its way to the States until 1980, when it played at the Telluride Film Festival. The program notes from that year explain that “For years the Telluride Festival has sought to premiere this masterpiece from one of the world’s greatest contemporary directors. Last year The Mirror was scheduled and confirmed to show here but was unfortunately held up by freight and customs, partially due to a Soviet ballerina’s defection, and was not received until after the festival. The print is here, has been subtitled in English, and will finally be exhibited in America.”
Despite its Colorado premiere, Mirror didn’t actually open theatrically in the States until nearly three years later when it played for two weeks at New York’s Film Forum.
As far as I can tell there was never a US poster for the film either, since the film didn’t seem to have a distributor when it was initially released. The mostly negative New York Times review can’t have helped its chances of distribution.
J. Hoberman in the Village Voice, however, was an ardent fan of Mirror and at the end of the year declared it the 3rd best film of 1983, just behind Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s 4-hour Parsifal and another late arrival, Nagisa Oshima’s 1960 Night and Fog in Japan. (For good measure, Scorsese’s The King of Comedy was 9th.)
At some point in the mid-80s US rights were acquired by International Film Exchange (IFEX) which specialized in Russian arthouse cinema and in the late ’80s Kino International put Mirror out on VHS. In 1992 Kino took over full distribution of IFEX’s catalogue, but the print of Mirror they inherited was much the worse for wear, which is probably why the film was rarely screened in the 90s. (In 2002 Kino commissioned new prints of all their Tarkovsky titles—one of which I would have seen at that Film Society retrospective—which spurred a small revival in the rep presentation of Mirror in the 2000s.)
In the UK the film was released by Artificial Eye and my favorite Mirror poster of all is probably their 1979 UK quad designed by the Polish designer Andrzej Klimowski. At that time many of Artificial Eye’s posters were being designed by a pair of American identical twins: Timothy and Stephen Quay. When they had to give up designing posters because they were starting to make their very labor-intensive stop-motion films they asked their friend, Andrzej Klimowski, who they had met at the Royal College of Art and who was then living in Warsaw, to design the poster for Mirror. Klimowski told me that he met Tarkovsky at the London Film Festival a few years later and gave him a copy of the poster which he liked a lot.
For the film’s release in Italy in 1979 there were two very different designs: for the 2-foglio a 2-color photo montage of mirrored faces of the cast (and a reflected title to boot) that conveys nothing of the film’s visual splendor:
...and a more stylized graphic approach for the locandina:
The original Japanese poster designed by Masakatsu Ogasawara takes almost the same elements from the French poster but subsumes them in a giant blue title which doesn’t feel right for the film.
For the Polish release, Marek Ploza-Dolinski painted a rather grim collage of faces (plus a large fly):
And for the 1980 Hungarian release Árpád Darvas represented the film with Terekhova’s face behind an awkwardly positioned broken glass.
Below are the Danish and East German posters for the film, equally mystifying in their aesthetic choices.
The Swedish poster (below left) co-opts the French design, while the Finnish poster has Terekhova looking out of a window that looks like nothing in the film (mind you, you should see the Finnish VHS cover which makes far less sense).
One of the most striking posters, or pieces of artwork, for the film is this by Polish artist Stasys Eidrigevičius from 1989, which says very little about the film itself but is very much in the inimitable Eidrigevičius style (he made a similar piece for Nostalghia).
I’m not sure when this Portuguese poster—the first to use one of the most iconic scenes from the film—was made but it feels like a more recent re-release.
The lovely UK re-release poster below, designed by Andrew Bannister, was part of a gorgeous Tarkovsky series made for Curzon Artificial Eye in 2016. Instead of agonizing over which of the film’s many splendid images would make a good poster, Bannister layers a number of them (including the levitating bed scene) into the mix, creating a graceful, ethereal collage.
Remarkably, none of the posters above use another of the film’s most iconic images: the early shot of Margarita Terekhova sitting on a fence staring out over a field that will soon be mysteriously rippling in the wind. But the two most recent posters for the film have coupled that image with a mirroring effect. The first, made as an art print for Mondo and Black Dragon Press in 2018, was drawn by Wesley Allsbrook:
And the second is the brand new re-release poster from Janus Films who are releasing a restored version of the film today (I’ve had a sneak preview and it looks amazing), finally putting Mirror back into theatrical distribution in the States (Kino having lost their rights to the film about ten years ago) and restoring it to its single-word title in the process. Janus, as is their wont, dispenses with pull quotes telling you that Mirror is the greatest film ever made, but you can take my word for it.
Mirror opens virtually today via the Film Society of Lincoln Center. You can watch the trailer here. Many thanks to Ben Crossley-Mara at Janus and Emma Hawley at SelfMadeHero, publisher of the Klimowski Poster Book, and to Karen Cooper at Film Forum, Gary Palmucci of Kino International, and Andrzej Klimowski for their recollections. And to James Norton who urged me to see Mirror all those years ago.