Issue 31 (2011)

Suren Babayan: Don’t Look in the Mirror (Mi nayir hayelun, Armenia, 2009)

reviewed by Genia Boivin © 2011

mirrorDon’t Look in the Mirror presents a plot that evolves around an aging and “none too attractive” man, whose life changes as he dissociates himself from his reflection in the mirror. Babayan’s film opens with a close-up of a nativity scene. As the actors start talking, the camera zooms out, revealing that the nativity scene consists, in fact, of a group of models posing during an art class. The words they exchange lead nowhere and make no sense until one of the characters breaks the mystical mise-en-scène by asking them to stop talking: “You make it sound like a circus!”

The following scene shows a room full of clocks and sculptures. Astvatsatryan, the “hero” of this story, sells a valuable icon for what seems a ridiculously low price. Upset, he spends the night in the company of friends and gets drunk. The following day—perhaps in reality, perhaps still in a dream—he wakes up to find that his mirror no longer reflects his image, but someone else’s. As the days pass, the hero acquires many more, male and female, reflections of his self, who all pretend to be him—or at least part of him. He realizes that he has lost his self. Not only has he lost his reflection, but others start calling him Khachik; only the people from his mirror know him as “Hero.” He rediscovers his own reflection a few days later in someone else’s mirror. The story ends with what seems to be the hero’s death, as the film closes on a passage from the Bible: “Remember that you and your slaves belong to the same Master in heaven who judges everyone by the same standard” (Ephesians 6:9).

mirrorThroughout the story, the viewer receives staggered clues about the hero’s identity. It seems impossible to fully grasp the complexity of this character. Despite the numerous close-ups of the protagonist, his real physical features are never fully captured by the camera: his eyes are only seen through his thick glasses. The hero is depicted as a “good Jew,” although he is selling holy images (icons) and items belonging to his late mother. At the beginning of the film we are told that he has children all over the world: in London, Warsaw, Kishinev, but also in Germany, Canada, and Australia; he is easily tempted by sex and alcohol. Thus, even though Hero has his “heart on the right side,” he is far from leading a model life. The religious tone of the story reinforces the impression that the hero has erred from the right path and that his alienation stems from a loss of faith.

mirrorBabayan’s film presents the themes of the self, of reality and of religion. The self is expressed through the concept of the image: the icon is the image of God; the different reflections of the hero in the mirror; at the art school students copy the great masters; twins reflect each other; and so on. The self and the image are closely related to the concept of reality. The image is both a reproduction and an imitation of reality. But which is true? Indeed, is there a “true” reality? Somehow, Babayan’s film echoes Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, where Alice finds another world behind the image of her self. Just like in Babayan’s film, the other side of the mirror is far from being a reverse image of our reality. Instead, the film uses the mirror to reveal fantasies, dreams, fears, desires and other hidden truths.

mirrorThe film is visually quite theatrical: characters are dramatically lit with spotlights that create luminescent showers, leaving the space around in the dark and making it impossible at times to situate the scenes. Sometimes grotesque shadows modify the faces. When the characters emerge from darkness, the fully lit real world continues to create a sense of discomfort through absurd conversations. For example, when the hero seeks medical help, he enters the doctor’s garden situated in the middle of buildings and statues in Greek style. Another beautiful scene occurs when the hero accepts his multiple personalities: he walks in an open space where masked characters on stilts parade to opera music. Their colorful costumes have long sleeves that float in the soft wind, creating a dreamy atmosphere.

The difficulty in classifying this rather unusual film appears to lie in its part within a trilogy. The first part of this trilogy is Jeano (2004), where Jean-Pierre Nshanyan plays a film director; the second is Don’t Look in the Mirror (2009), where he plays an artist; and the final part will be The Weighty Bug [1] (not yet released), where Nshanyan plays a writer. According to Babayan, these three professions truly reflect Armenian thinkers.[2]

Another difficulty lies in the fact that different sources seem to have influenced Babayan in the production. The film was announced as a surrealist film; it examines the dream, the inner self, and repressed truths. The script follows the novel of the same title by Perch Zeituntsyan, an Armenian playwright and novelist who briefly served as Minister of Culture. The film proposes ambiguous dialogues organized in “scenes,” stunning and poetic visuals and an exploration of the human psyche. The story is organized around different levels of reality where, like in a dream, situations can be absurd and impossible things can happen.

The film has an enigmatic narrative structure, in which truth and fiction are difficult to distinguish. Its temporal and spatial relationship of the events is also open to question. However puzzling it is, Don’t Look in the Mirror is fascinating in both its script and its visual solution.

Genia Boivin
University of Alberta

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1] Black Book, or The Weighty Bug, by Levon Kechoyan, translated by Aram Ohanian and published in London in 2008.

2] Babayan for the “Golden Apricot” Yerevan International Film Festival 2010. 

Works Cited

Carroll, Lewis, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, New York: Random House, 1946.

Don’t Look in the Mirror. Armenia, 2009.
Color, 101 min.
Director: Suren Babayan
Screenplay: Suren Babayan (based on the novel by Perch Zeituntsyan)
Director of Photography: Gevorg Sarkisyan
Music: Edward Hairapetyan
Production Design: Vardan Sedrakyan
Cast: Jean Pierre Nshanyan, Rafael Kotanjian, Mariam Davtyan
Production: National Cinema Centre of Armenia.
Producers: Vardan Abovyan, Gevorg Gevorkyan

Suren Babayan: Don’t Look in the Mirror (Mi nayir hayelun, Armenia, 2009)

reviewed by Genia Boivin © 2011