Mirrors and their reflections are a complex signifier in cinema, a visual tool used to dramatize framing, while, also, a symbol of vanity, image, and identity. Influenced by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, there is a tradition in film theory that interprets projected images as a mirror for the spectator: an idealized image that realizes all our fantasies and dreams. The presence of the mirror is often an implication of self-reflexivity, challenging our own identification and a film’s representation: how the characters view their own image, how we see them, and the role of the filmmaker in representing them. These are the five best uses of mirrors and reflections in 2015 films:
In Ex Machina, Caleb, a low-level coder, is invited by the CEO of a tech company, Nathan, to his secluded, state-of-the-art home to perform the Turing Test on what could be the first sentient and conscious artificial intelligence. Ironically, as he begins to believe more and more in the human qualities of the robot, Ava, he begins to question his own humanity, free will and position in the evolutionary chain. After seeing Nathan’s maid (whom he is surprised to discover is a robot) pull back her face like foreskin, Caleb hysterically examines his body in front of a mirror, going as far as slitting his arm open to see his “mechanical” insides. Are his bones, blood, and eyes, nothing more than the gears in a machine, moving to a set of rules that have already been programmed into his genetic make-up? Is there anything that separates Ava from Caleb, or is he a rung lower in the evolutionary ladder?
Ramin Bahrani, whose earlier films like Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo, and Man Push Cart were about outsiders and immigrants in America, shifted his focus to a national crisis in 99 Homes, one that obliterated a seminal part of American identity. The subprime mortgage crisis cast a cynical shadow on the notion that anyone can be wealthy and a home owner in America. 99 Homes traces an everyman, Dennis, who is employed by the man that evicts him from his own home, going on to profit from others’ losses and poverty. Near the end of the film, after Dennis has made enough money to buy a stoic mansion, his mother and son leave him when they discover how he made the money to purchase the home. Dennis hits the bottle and wakes up drunk on the tiled floor as a reflection from the pool on the French doors offers the illusion that he is underwater on the ground. From a purely financial perspective, Dennis has succeeded in achieving the American Dream; he has bought a home through hard work but he has also become ethically bankrupt, drowning in the thing he sacrificed his morals to gain.
In a dazzling and poetic moment, Lili Elbe, the first person to undergo a sex change, attends a peep show, mimicking the stripper’s effeminate movements. Divided by a pane of glass, we look through the divider between Lili and the stripper with a shallow depth of field, shifting focus between the reflection of the stripper and Lili’s performative attempt to emulate. No matter how close, Lili can’t duplicate the stripper’s sensual movements; she will never be able to perfectly copy the reflection.
When Nelly Lenz has her face reconstructed in Phoenix after returning from Auschwitz, the doctor offers her two complexions and identities: Zarah Leander or Krisitina Soderbaum, actresses who were popular during the ’30s and ’40s. Nelly pleads she just wants to look like herself, but it’s impossible; the pain inflicted by the Holocaust has left her too battered. She can only put on an act, a falsely-constructed persona. She is not the person she was before. She can only pretend to be. While wandering in the rubble of a destroyed home, Nelly catches a glimpse of her face in the shard of a mirror. The image that stares back at her has been shattered and fractured like her identity in post-war Germany.
Almost everything Steven Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies has to say is in the opening shot. We gaze upon Rudolf Able, a Russian spy living in America during the Cold War, as he paints an image of himself based on the reflection he sees in the mirror (the composition also draws from One and Three Chairs by Josephy Kosuth). Bridge Of Spies, which is about an undercover exchange of war prisoners between the Soviet Union and the USA, challenges us to see past propagandistic representations. It is a film about how each country sees themselves, how they paint their ideology, but the film is also forcing us to consider how perceptions are molded by the images we are presented.
In a globalizing world, where cultures are becoming more homogeneous, where the American Dream is being assaulted, where gender identities are fluid, where national cinemas are considering their countries’ histories, and where technology is beginning to spawn discussions about what makes us human, our filmmakers have used the mirror to project these crises of identity. The cinema is no longer just a mirror of fantasy but also reflection of the real world problems that stare directly back at us.