When the Criterion Channel picked films to go into its “Frame of Mind” collection, apparently the only requirement was the movies have something to do with the profession of psychiatry. The selection’s a bit haphazard, and lacks some prominent titles—no Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, no Spellbound, no One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But there’s at least one solid classic: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris.
Based on a book by Polish science-fiction satirist Stanislaw Lem, with a script by Tarkovsky and Friedrich Gorenstein, the 1972 film is in some ways not the most obvious choice for the collection. The lead character, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), is a psychologist living on Earth at some unspecified point in the future, and that profession does theoretically drive the plot: strange things are happening on a space station studying the distant planet Solaris, and Kelvin is sent to evaluate the mental state of the station’s three-man crew.
But he doesn’t really act like a psychiatrist—doesn’t sit down with the crewmembers in therapy sessions, or conceptualize what he finds in psychoanalytic terms. He’s more of an everyman, wandering through a deserted overlarge space station, interacting with an alien situation.
When Kelvin arrives on the station he finds one of the crew, a former friend, is dead. And the other two are seeing figures from their pasts—perhaps aliens, perhaps hallucinations. Kelvin soon sees one of these figures himself, his dead wife Hari (the superlative Natalya Bondarchuk). Kelvin shoots the pseudo-Hari into space, only for another version of her to return. He begins to fall in love with her again; but must face both the things he did to the original human Hari, and the mystery of her current incarnation.
The plot summation barely hints at the film’s oddity. Like all Tarkovsky’s work it’s intensely meditative. Most filmmakers compose shots as the equivalent of sentences or clauses in a novel; Tarkovsky’s shots are paragraphs, long slow intricate journeys that evoke more and deeper emotion than their manifest content would suggest. There’s little interest in the science-fictional details of Lem’s text, which was hardly overwhelmed with techno-babble to start with. Tarkovsky pares explanations and theories back even further, confronting the audience with simple emotional states and mysteries we must ponder and live with.
Solaris is a masterwork, meaning that you can extract an infinite amount of thematic meaning from it. You can see the film as having to do with, among other things, love and regret and freedom and the right and wrong of how we treat other people. Viewed as part of a collection of movies dealing with psychiatry, though, one particular theme emerges.
Tarkovsky’s made a movie about human beings encountering their own unconscious. The alien planet tries to meet human beings on their own terms, studying them and interacting with them by finding images in their memories and giving those images life. So the human experience of Solaris-the-planet is of a place where you encounter those things you dwell on, those things the deepest part of you can’t leave behind—what troubles you and draws you and haunts your dreams.
The unconscious defines what’s human in the face of what’s alien. The alien power of the film studies the human unconscious to understand us; and therefore is a reflection of Kelvin, who, as a psychiatrist, does the same thing for the same reason. It’s an unstated parallel, and Kelvin’s lack of reliance on psychiatric jargon undersells it. But it’s there, and it gives the choice of Kelvin’s profession significance.
Ultimately, in Solaris objective reality’s called into question. Is there a reality outside ourselves, or is the outer world only a reflection of our psyche? How much are our perceptions shaped by our own unconscious? This is the only film in Criterion’s “Frame of Mind” collection from outside the Anglosphere, but it fits in because it extends the idea of psychiatry—Tarkovsky suggests that all of what a person views as reality can be considered as a function of that individual’s psychiatric condition.
This is a movie in which a young woman is obsessed with an older man, but it knows enough to present the girl as a creation of the man’s fantasies. If Solaris hints that all the people we think we perceive are only creations of our own psyches, what saves the film from solipsism, and tedium, is its exploration of wrenching emotional material. Its characters confront those things they can’t deal with, and Kelvin’s struggle to come to terms with his past is effective drama.
This isn’t a science-fiction film that relies on gadgetry or special effects. Kelvin’s journey to the planet isn’t shown on screen. The station’s run down, with odd-angled computer banks stuck here and there. There’s a kind of arbitrariness to the place, which is far too large for a crew of three, and contains a richly-appointed library with reproductions of classic paintings. It’s unclear where food comes from, how the station deals with the oxygen and water requirements of unexpected company, and why communication with Earth is so incredibly fitful.
That’s because plausibility of setting isn’t the point. Even on Earth, locations are presented as reflections of desires and memories—a house built on the plan of another house, for example. By the end of the movie this is literalized, Kelvin moving through a world built entirely out of his own mind.
There’s a traditional theme in science fiction of human beings going out into space only to meet themselves. That’s what happens in Solaris, to the extent that it’s possible to go anywhere. The film is an argument that there is in the end nothing but psychiatry—that it’s the mind that makes the outer world. To quote that other great science-fiction film The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension: no matter where you go, there you are.