Mirrors in Films: Duality, Secrets and Revelations, and the Passage to the Otherworld

Snow White MirrorI love mirrors. They let one pass through the surface of things.” (Claude Chabrol, French film director)

This will be my 300th post, and, as now customary, I am writing on objects in films and their (symbolic) meanings. For my other similar article, check out Gloves in Films: Hiding True Character and Desires, when I “celebrated” my 200th blog post. Mirrors can play many roles in films. (Narcissistic) film characters can utilise them to satisfy their vanity (“Gone with the Wind” (1939)); to ego-boost (“Taxi Driver” (1976) or “La Haine” (1995)); for self-examination or to marvel at their transformation (“The Aviator” (2004) or “Vanilla Sky” (2001)); Gone with the Windor films use them for dramatic showdowns (“The Lady from Shanghai” (1947)), among many other roles and meanings. However, in this piece, I would like to focus on three interpretations in particular: (i) the usage of mirrors as they demonstrate the character’s dual nature (often revealing the character’s evil/bad nature when that character otherwise appears good); (ii) mirrors used to emphasise secrecy or to reveal secrets; and (iii) the use of mirrors as certain clandestine passages to the Otherworld.   

Psycho I. Duality

The usage of mirrors in films can point to the character’s dual nature, and mirrors are often used in films to signify that a character has two conflicting personalities or now has intentions and thoughts that do not normally occur to his/her usual self. Alfred Hitchcock loved mirrors in his films (appeared, for example, in “North by Northwest” (1959) and in “Vertigo” (1958)). In “Psycho” (1960), when Marion Crane steals the money from her boss, she is shown in her room with the money, and the mirror in the room stresses her dual nature and duplicity (she once looks straight at it), and her transformation from an innocent real estate secretary into a desperate woman now guilty of theft and on the run. Crane’s mirror images then follow her to Norman Bates’ motel and mirror images there also hint at her current duality and now secretive nature since, now, she harbours her recent illegal deed. In this sense, mirrors inevitably become silent observers or witnesses to the character’s duplicity. 

Mirrors and reflections are also everywhere in “Perfect Blue” (1997) (the symbolism of which Aronofsky so conveniently “borrowed” for his “Black Swan” (2010)). In “Perfect Blue”, the apparitions of Mima’s “alter ego” often emerge either before or after Mima looks in a mirror/reflection. Mirrors in the animation make a disquieting reminder of Mima’s sense of duality and her path away from her “good” moral self. As convincingly, in “Repulsion” (1965), Carol is often shown in a mirror, for example, in one scene with a razor in her hand, hinting at her hidden, but already emerging second nature and repressed emotions. The contrast between Carol’s sweet and innocent looks and the danger inside is also amplified. Similarly, in Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), a mirror is used effectively to demonstrate the change in Marion (Jennifer Connelly) before and after the taking of a drug. Other films where mirrors were used to accentuate the character’s dual nature or “split” personality are “Carrie” (1976), “Face/Off” (1997), “American Psycho” (2000) and “The Machinist” (2004).

1II. Secrets and Revelations 

Very closely linked to the number one point, another subtler symbolic interpretation of mirrors is all to do with their presentation to emphasise secrets and appearances which deceive in a picture frame. In Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” (1960), we often see Patricia through a mirror reflection, which may emphasise the secretive arrangement that she now has with Michel. In 1995, Claude Chabrol made the film “La Cérémonie”, adapted from the Ruth Rendell novel and loosely based on the infamous case of French sisters Christine and Lea Papin. In that film, mirrors hint at “the sense of going beyond appearances” (as also confirmed through an interview with the director, Berthomieu, Jeancolas and Vassse (1995)). In the film, After Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) asks Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert) about the death of her child in a fire, Jeanne answers that her guilt was not proven in court, and a mirror is shown right after her statement, hinting at her deceptiveness, but also at all the secrets the two harbour. It is also through a mirror that we see Sophie as she stealthy lifts a phone receiver in another room and overhears Melinda’s secret discussion with her boyfriend.

In Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980), the creepy, unexplained and secretive things emerge just before or during some presentation of a mirror. A mirror is also used when paranormal world decides to reveal some of its secrets or premonitions (for example, in the scenes where a boy Danny is talking to his “imaginary friend” in the film’s beginning or Jack talks about his “déjà vu” moments right before he is shown in the mirror having breakfast with his wife at the hotel). In Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road” (2008), there is a scene in the beginning where April (Kate Winslet) talks to her husband (Leonardo DiCaprio) by addressing his reflection in the mirror in a changing room. The use of mirror here amplifies the impersonal nature and coldness of their talk – a psychological barrier between them, but the mirror may also signal their secret/hidden tensions and the secret root causes of their discomfort and unhappiness.

Mirrors can also be used in a film to reveal (often dramatically or in a sinister way) vital clues and other secrets. Sinister glimpses of truth are seen through a mirror in Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1965). There, Carol’s secret past (a frightening man) is revealed to her in a mirror’s reflection and frightens her (he is also probably the reason of her shyness when it comes to sexual intimacy). In Dario Argento’s “Deep Red” (1975), a murder victim gives a clue to solving her murder by writing on a steamed up mirror, and other hints at truth revealed through mirrors are present in “Fearless Vampire Killers” (1967) (vampires cannot be reflected in a mirror), and in “The Shining“, when Jack looks in a mirror and realises his deception regarding the beautiful woman in a bath. Mirrors also reveal one kind of truth in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001), where the mirror Erised can show one his/her most deepest desires and Harry is presented with the vision of his family while standing in front a mirror. 

Orphee III. Passage to the Otherworld

More obviously, but no less interestingly, mirrors sometimes play a role of doors leading to the otherworld in fantasy films. Reflecting people’s images, mirrors have often been associated with magic and the occult, and, thus often used as divination devices in the past. Therefore, generally,  mirrors were favourite devices in horror films, see “Poltergeist” (1982), “Candyman” (1992) and “Oculus” (2013). In Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), based on a 1812 published tale of the Brothers Grimm (in turn based on other accounts), a mirror is used by the Queen to get the knowledge no one otherwise can access. Another example is “Alice Through the Looking Glass” (2016), based on Lewis Carroll’s 1871 story, where Alice goes to the Wonderland through a mirror. In Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (2009), a mirror is also represented as a passage which one can take to enter another world filled with figments of one’s imagination. Also, in Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus” (1950), a mirror is represented as the door to the underworld where Death resides (and mirrors are also presented there as objects reflecting death); among other numerous examples. Curiously, a mirror is also used effectively in Cocteau’s “The Blood of a Poet” (1930) and “La Belle et la Bête” (1946) to highlight sinister and magical effects.    

18 thoughts on “Mirrors in Films: Duality, Secrets and Revelations, and the Passage to the Otherworld

  1. In my opinion, no “Mirrors in Films” listing would be complete with Orson Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1948), which has one of the most famous and climatic mirrors scenes (involving Welles, Rita Hayworth, and Everett Sloane) in movie history.

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      1. Wow, two mistakes in one comment — I really outdid myself!. The first mistake was inadvertent, but the second was my bad, and I apologize for overlooking your LADY FROM SHANGHAI reference.

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  2. Another fantastic point. Mirrors are excellent as metaphors and symbols. I like your selections and would add the significant role the mirror plays in “The Hustler” as secrets & revelations between Fast Eddy and Sarah.

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