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The 20 Best Uses of Mirrors in Cinema History

13 September 2016 | Features, Other Lists | by Riccardo Basso

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The mirror stands as one of the great objects of cinema. It has been widely used, and has always fascinated directors in a particular way, as if its mere presence in a scene could create a unique visual moment, as well as adding psychological nuances to the film.

Mirrors are reflections and duplications of reality, which can be said of cinema itself; the introduction of this “meta” element between reality, cinema and reflection is often the very reason why filmmakers choose to use mirrors as part of their works.

Apart from this aspect, many directors simply cannot resist the temptation of exploiting the visual potentiality of this object, often employing more than one mirror in the same scene to create unique duplicating effects.

This list looks at the films that best used mirrors in effective, innovative, or striking ways.

 

20. Boogie Nights

Just as the final scene of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull references another movie (On The Waterfront by Elia Kazan), the last sequence of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights homages the ending of Raging Bull itself.

Anderson (or even better, Anderson’s style) has never hidden the fact that Martin Scorsese, together with Robert Altman, is the main inspiration for the way he builds the universe of his movies.

Apart from the reverence Anderson shows to his masters, the homage to Raging Bull has a twist which underlines the film’s general sense of irony: while talking to himself in the mirror as De Niro’s Jake La Motta did, Mark Wahlberg’s Eddie Adams/Dirk Diggler unveils the over-sized body part which made him a porn legend, which makes for a less dramatic moment, but just as effective.

 

19. 3 Women

This 1977 film by Robert Altman intersects the stories and destinies of three different female figures: Millie (Shelly Duvall), an enthusiastic young woman, Pinky (Sissy Spacek), an apparently childish woman, and an eccentric artist, Willie (Janice Rule).

In Bergmanian fashion, Altman extensively shows the protagonists reflected on a mirror, and subsequently introduces the ideas of ambiguity and duplicity. The traits of the three women, and in particular of Millie and Pinky, seem almost to merge and progressively get lost into one another.

The characters struggle to embody a certain female “persona” but fail in doing so. The film’s atmosphere is oneiric and psychological; 3 Women was clearly inspired by Bergman’s work, but to some degree it has become influential on its own, as David Lynch’s Mullholand Drive proves.

 

18. Summer Interlude

Summer Interlude (1951) is one of the earliest films in Bergman’s filmography, especially considering that he directed more than sixty movies, and was repeatedly described by the director himself as the first film in which he found his true artistic voice and his cinematic style.

It is no coincidence, then, that mirrors are heavily featured in the film; they are often in front of Marie, the protagonist, giving the spectator and insight to her thoughts and reflectiveness, and are also featured in a beautifully framed dialogue between Marie and her ballet-master.

 

17. Dead of Night

Dead of Night is a 1945 British horror film. One of the few horror films produced in Britain at the time, it has proven quite successful and its resonance is still present in the genre.

The film follows a central story around which various tales of horror unfold, narrated by a group of people to a man who claims to know each one of them, but only from his dreams. One of these tales is the story of a haunted mirror in which the past is shown. A striking horror moment which makes the film’s elaborate mosaic of thrilling stories even more memorable.

 

16. The Mirror

Andrei Tarkovsky decided to name his fourth full-length film “Mirror” while he was shooting it. Mirrors are present throughout the whole movie, maybe not too prominently for a film titled after them, but certainly in a significant fashion.

The film is built as a series of inconsequential recollections of a man, and has a dream-like atmosphere which owes something to Bergman, as a movie titled “The Mirror” could not have avoided doing.

The film has the slow pace and the long takes for which Tarkovsky’s style has become recognizable, and constantly switches through different time periods. Perhaps less known to the general public than other works such as Solaris or Stalker, the film has the undisputed admiration of legions of critics and film fans and stands as one of the great masterpieces of cinema.

 

15. Enter the Dragon

“Remember: the enemy has only images and illusions. Destroy the image and you will break the enemy”. This is the philosophical maxim that Bruce Lee’s character remembers near the end of Enter the Dragon before the final confrontation with his enemy Han.

The sentence gains a particular meaning since the place where Lee is about to fight is filled with mirrors; the subsequent fight scene has many broken mirrors and hypnotic reflections of great effect.

This was Lee’s final film before his mysterious death in 1973; the film was released six days after he died. Enter the Dragon is a classic martial arts film, and one of the most known of the genre, a fact that is proven by the great number of homages and parodies the movie has garnered through the years.

 

14. Eternity and a Day

The Palme d’Or winner at the 1998 edition of the Cannes Festival was Theo Angelopoulos’ Eternity and a Day (Μια αιωνιότητα και μια μέρα); it is one of the Greek director’s masterpieces and the third entry in the Trilogy of Borders.

The main character’s in the story are a terminally ill poet (Bruno Ganz) and an Albanian boy (Achilleas Skevis) who is an illegal immigrant; also featured is a 19th century poet played by Fabrizio Bentivoglio.

The film is as stylistically masterful as one can expect an Angelopoulos film to be. It features a wonderful mirror scene in which the man and the boy enter a bar; as the man talks, the camera stays on a mirror on which we can see the boy’s reflection.

A group of policemen enter, and the boy immediately gets scared and takes a step back, disappearing from the frame, just as another man enters the bar and is shown twice, in the mirror and outside of it. It is only after a few moments that the viewer understands, through the reflection of the poet’s reaction, that the boy has run outside the bar.

 

13. Black Swan

After having told the story of wrestler who has fallen in disgrace and his intense struggles, Darren Aronofsky directed Black Swan (2010), a film with similar themes of obsession and professional-artistic dedicaton.

A journey into ballerina Nina Sayers’ (Natalie Portman) psiche, the film plays with the concepts of reality and perception, as earlier films of Aronofsky such as Requiem for a Dream did. One revealing sequence is the fitting scene, in which Natalie Portman’s character stands in front of a mirror while her body is measured for costumes, and one of her paranoid visions appear.

The whole film is filled with mirrors, them being in the dressing rooms, or the rehearsal gym, and so on. Deceptive reflections are the symbol for paranoia, and in the end the most extreme moment of the ballerina’s descent into madness happens through a broken mirror.

 

12. Last year at Marienbad

A French-Italian coproduction, Lat Year in Marienbad is Alan Resnais’ second film after his masterful debut Hiroshima Mon Amour. If his first film dwelled on the theme of memory, this second feature is built to resemble a dream, and its editing, scenographic and visual choices steer away from the regular sense of perception of reality; the screenplay, which was adapted down to the detail by Resnais, is by Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Heavily criticized for its pretentiousness, the film has also been hailed as a masterpiece of surrealism and New-Wave cinema. Mirrors are a crucial part of the experimentations Robbe-Grillet and Resnais adopted for the film, and the hotel the film is set in is filled with them.

The most memorable image of the film concerning a mirror is the one in which Giorgio Albertazzi looks at Delphine Seyrig down an hall, but the spectator only sees the woman in a reflection near Albertazzi’s close-up.

 

11. Orphée

Orphée is a 1950 film by Jean Cocteau which retells in a modern setting the legend of Orpheus and Euridices. The Greek myth tells of Orpheus, an exceptionally skilled musician who can sway both living and non living things with his music; when his wife Eurydice dies, he gets the chance to retrieve her from the underworld, only to the condition to not look at her during their journey back to the world of the living; this proves too much to him, and has he turns to look at her, he loses her again.

Cocteau’s adaptation features an impressive mirror scene, when Orpheus has to enter the underworld. He first has to put on special gloves (this particular action is actually shown in reverse order), and then passes through a mirror whose glass becomes liquid and lets him pass. The tricks used for the scene are not extremely elaborate but perfectly work in the film’s oneiric atmosphere.

 

 

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  • Chandradeep

    Gertrud and Citizen Kane must be up there. Last Year at Marienbad ought to be higher too. Gertrud’s use of mirror is amazing. Also Kane walking through the hallway and Toland’s deep focus working magic aided by those innumerable mirror images. In Gertrud,The scene starts and ends with the mirror and is one of the best directed scenes ever. Here – https://mubi.com/films/gertrud
    sorry I couldn’t find the link. Also I won’t put Inception in between these masterpieces especially ahead of the ones you’ve put in the list..

  • Mortimer

    No way is ‘Inception’ in the Top 10. Above ‘Raging Bull’ ? Not a chance.

    • V.C. Privitera

      Agreed!

  • Alain

    Chinese Roulette!

  • frank mango

    dude come on. 25th hour edward norton looks in the mirror and does his crazy rant

    • V.C. Privitera

      While “25th Hour” is one of my favorite films….I wouldn’t necessarily pick that scene…not that the whole part is bad or anything, but I felt, even when the film came out back in 2002, that the scene kinda plagiarized Spike Lee’s own early masterpiece of “Do The Right Thing” when the montage of different cultural-race boils between each ethnic character…
      Still a powerful scene in both of Lee’s films, and interestingly enough the irony of how Racism really never changes even within the time-space between both films, all the way to today!

  • Alexander

    Oldboy

  • shane scott-travis

    A very good list but I’d add De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise and, more recently, Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise. 🙂

  • V.C. Privitera

    Not for nothing, but why put “Boogie Nights” out of plenty more choices you could’ve chosen…cause just like you immediately pointed out, the ending is practically a complete rip-off of “Raging Bull.”
    I’m not dissing Paul Thomas Anderson or even “Boogie Nights,” cause Anderson & practically all his films are in a realm of their own…BUT!
    Like I said, you could’ve chosen a better choice (in my humble opinion).

    I’m surprised there’s no comedies in this list…one that I came across just a week ago:

    “Seven Years Bad Luck” (1921) written/directed/starring: Max Linder

    – Majority of Comedy-Giants (including Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Abbott & Costello, Marx Bros, etc.) during the golden-era of Silent Cinema, they all point to Max Linder as being the most influential and this film launched a very infamous/influential scene of using a mirror as not only the plot of the story, but hysterically utilizing another Character to “Mirror” Max Linder’s reflection as so Linder doesn’t realize his Butler/Maid had broken the Mirror before he wakes up…
    This technique has been formatted time & time again, even during the Silent-Era itself, but Max Linder’s film is the quintessential best!

  • Melih Sancak

    man you should add really “la haine”