DIRECTED BY: Aleksandr Sokurov
FEATURING: Sergey Dreyden, Aleksandr Sokurov
PLOT: In one take, a ghostlike figure wanders through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, watching re-enactments of Russian history and debating art and culture with a French aristocrat.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: As the longest unbroken take in the history of cinema, Russian Ark is somewhat experimental in form, and with its intermingling of various eras of Russian history inside the Hermitage museum, it is somewhat surreal in content. Viewed simply as tour de force filmmaking, it’s worth seeing for the curious and cultured, and a must-see for film school types. The film’s only drawback is that its high art, highly Russophilic preoccupations make it unavoidably stuffy at times, and risk limiting its appeal to the tea-and-crumpets (er, samovar-and-beluga?) crowd.
COMMENTS: Who is the main character of Russian Ark? Ghost? Amnesiac time traveler? Dreamer? Or just a metaphorical representative of the Russian spirit? The speaker through whose eyes we watch Russian Ark remembers some vague accident, but opens his eyes to see women in furs and feathered headdresses emerging from a carriage; accompanied by men in formal scarlet military uniforms, he judges their fashions to be from the 1800s. He’s swept along with the guests from a snowy courtyard through a wooden door; he eventually deduces he is the Winter Palace section of the Hermitage, the ancient home of the Czars that was turned into the world’s largest art museum. No can see or hear him until he encounters an older man in black, who is equally lost in time and space; this is the Marquis, who will be his companion through the rest of his odyssey through the Hermitage.
That journey involves the pair passing through the various rooms of the museum, some of which are occupied by today’s art patrons, and some by ghosts from prior ages, including Peter the Great, Anastasia, and Catherine the Great (who is looking for a chamberpot). Curiously, there is little focus on the individual works of art; the camera rarely gives the paintings and statuary more than a passing glance, instead maintaining a constant wide-angle view of each sprawling, packed chamber. We watch courtly episodes from history and eavesdrop on some conversations, but the meat of the movie are the conversations between the European Marquis and the modern Russian through whose eyes we see the museum. Some of their dialogue is absurd, but much of it is self-reflective hand-wringing over the state of Russian culture. Russians come off as having a bit of an inferiority complex towards Europe. The Marquis sneers that Russians are great copyists in the fine arts, but produce nothing original; all the great works in the museum come from the French, the Italians, or others. He is disdainful towards the Russian people, yet he is slowly won over by the final scene, a massive Czarist ball where he joins in a mazurka with the ghosts of past maidens. Overcome with nostalgia for the lovely aristocratic past, the Marquis decides to stay behind at the phantasmagorical ballet. His decision validates the Ark’s role in preserving Western culture, but the Russian chooses to go on without him, headed towards an unknown destiny. Although we get a few clues as to the man behind the point-of-view’s identity, it isn’t really important. Russian Ark‘s main character is actually the Hermitage.
Russian Ark was shot in a single 87-minute take with a digital camera that followed the characters through thirty-three rooms of the Winter Palace. The cast included over 2,000 extras, and a full orchestra, all of whom had to be costumed and choreographed. Rehearsals lasted for months before the shot was attempted. Depending on which source you believe, the take was flawlessly executed on either the third or the fourth attempt. (To make things slightly easier, the sound was recorded later). Only one day was allocated to actual filming.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
(This movie was nominated for review by Jenn, who insightfully suggested that it was “perhaps artsy instead of weird” but added “[i]t is super pretty and certainly unusual and dreamy.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)