Reflections on the mirror image. (Post 2 linked to Jaco Van Dormael’s The Brand New Testament).

In this second post (Post 1: A slice of Buñuel). linked to Jaco Van Dormael’s Le Tout Nouveau Testament (The Brand New Testament) I’ll be focussing on his particular fascination with the mirror image and similar usage by other famous directors. Before checking out the clip at the end called MIRROR IMAGE you can read the below text explaining what’s so special about these particular movie extracts.

The clip starts of with a small segment of the celebrated opening point of view shot from Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). We see the main charachter following his butler who will get his coat, hat and cane as Dr. Jekyll is leaving his mansion to give a lecture and happens to pass a mirror. As the camera approaches the mirror and films straight into it we see the reflection of Dr. Jeckyll as portrayed by Fredric March in his oscar winning performance. What we get to see is actually impossible as we should be seeing the reflection of the camera + crew into the mirror instead.
The way this effect what created is by building a duplicate symmetrical (mirroring) set. The actor Frederic March therefore was situated behind the wall of the dupe set and therefore had to act in perfect unison and had to appear at the exact same moment the camera moved in front of the mirror which is actually just a hole in the wall through which we see the mirror replication of the same set. When the actor who’s playing the butler opens the door of the cloakroom and enters it to get the coat, hat and cane he joins Fredric March on he other side of the set and hands it over to March and then while March is putting them on he quickly needs to move back to the other side of the set to open the front door.

We then cut to a door being opened by a killer in a short portion of ‘the movie within the movie’ opening scene of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981). It’s also a point of view shot, we see the killer enter a shower room of a female dormitory and approach a mirror in which the killer sees his own reflection, he turns away and approaches his female victim  currently taking a shower. In this shot an actual mirror was used and the actor and steadicam operator -which happened to be Garrett Brown the inventor of the steadicam- had to be placed strategically and had to choreograph their simultanious movements to create the illusion of the point of view shot looking into the mirror without the camera being visible.

Next up are the first and last shot of Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). In the opening shot we see a televison commercial staring Nicholas Cage. The camera pans back and we see his daughter (Helen Hunt) watching her father on TV and mentions this to her mother (Kathleen Turner) who as the camera keeps pulling back we can see is doing her make-up sitting in front of a mirror. The camera keeps pulling back and we see the back of Kathleen Turner and her image reflected in the mirror. As this was one continuous take again we’ve been looking at an impossible shot as the camera had to move through the mirror which is physically impossible. To achieve this -as with the Mamoulian film- a double adjoining set was created, this time a body double had to mimic the actress Kathleen Turner’s movements with her back facing the camera. All the bottles and objects standing in front of the mirror had to be put at both sides of the set. When you look closely you’ll notice the movements of Kathleen Turner and her body double are not perfectly synchronised but when you do not realise hwo the shot was done the illusion will probably work perfectly.
The 2nd shot from Peggy Sue… is very similar to the first shot (again a camera going through a mirror, this time in a hospital bedroom) but with the added difficulty there are now 3 actors and 3 body doubles that need to act in perfect synchronicity while they have their backs to each other (whereas in the first shot Kathleen Turner and the body double were facing each other).

In case you haven’t seen the original Twin Peaks series yet it’s best not to look at and read this part of the clip/text as it has a bit of a spoiler since it’s the ending of the final episode (at least for now) directed by David Lynch. We see special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) looking at himself in a mirror and immediately afterwards smashing his head into it. We notice through the shattered reflection of the mirror that the mirror image reflected is not that of Cooper but that of Killer Bob (Frank Silva). MacLachlan and Silva move in unison at either side of the duplicate adjoining set with a haunting devilish smile and laughter.

In La Haine (1995) director Mathieu Kassovitz has Vincent Cassel deliver the french version of the famous you’re talking to me speech from Taxi Driver (1976) in front of a mirror. (A bit of trivia: in Taxi Driver this speech was filmed in a mirror and we actually only get to see the filmes reflection in the mirror). Same trick here, the camera is placed behind a body double who stands in front of the mirror, he moves down to drink water from the faucet after having brushed his teeth. The camera moves in while off camera the body double moves out of the shot and when Cassel at the other side of the set looks up straight into the camera we have the impossible illusion of a point of view (we become Vincent Cassel) shot looking straight into a mirror.

Jaco Van Dormael used a similar mirror shot for the first time in Mr. Nobody (2009) and had his particual take on it, at the same time perfectly assimilated with the thematics of his film and as a cinematic injoke. Jared Letho plays a charachter that since a childhood trauma can no longer take any decisions and therefore in his mind is living out endless variations of his potential other lifes. At at certain stage in the film he wakes up in the bed of one family and walks into the bathroom and wants to turn on the light but it happens to be at the other side of the room (he belived to be in a mirror version of his bathroom). He walks towards the mirror looks into it and afterwards walks into the reflection he sees and ends up in that mirror image which happens to be another one of his alternate families. The shot was achieved with a combination of a duplicated adjoining set in combination with visual effects.

In Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987) there’s a funny (and scary) scene were Bruce Campbell looks into a mirror after some horrible typical Evil Dead stuff has taking place and wants to reassure himself everything is ok when suddenly his mirror image grabs him and advises him of the contrary. Again this was achieved practically by director Sam Raimi by using a duplicate set with the principal actor at one side and a body double at the other.

In Le Tout Nouveau Testament (2015) Jaco Van Dormael pulls a similar trick. The shot starts with a real mirror in a bathroom filmed from the right. A body double moves in front of the camera at which point there’s a subliminal cut to the same set this time with a duplicate set behind the mirror. The body double approaches the mirror and we see François Damiens appear in the mirror image and they embrace each other through the dupe sets.

To end of there’s a brief funny clip from Marc Foster’s Stranger Than Fiction (2006) which has a bit of an impossible mirror shot as well.

Jan Bollen

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