LIST CANDIDATE: RUSSIAN ARK (2002)

Recommended

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.

Still from Russian Ark (2002)
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:

“If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening. ‘Russian Ark’ spins a daydream made of centuries.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(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.)

6 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: RUSSIAN ARK (2002)”

    1. Please take the quote in context, Damo. That line comes as I’m describing “why it might make the List,” meaning that the drawback refers to the film’s appropriateness for inclusion among the List of the weirdest movies ever made, not that it’s a drawback for the film itself.

      Also, note that I didn’t say the film’s drawback is that it “is” high art. I said “the film’s only drawback is that its… preoccupations make it unavoidably stuffy at times, and risk limiting its appeal…” The “preoccupations” I speak of are the movie’s fine arts enthusiasms coupled with its Russia-centric concerns. The movie is primarily an intellectual argument aimed at a specific audience of cultured Russians, and although other groups can enjoy it (as we both did) I worry that it may not have widespread appeal for most of our readers.

  1. Isn’t this list entirely made up of films that have limited widespread appeal? And doesn’t that mean that you’re essentially writing to appease an audience who would never like anything shown on this website? If you’re always thinking about how others may not appreciate something, how can anyone ever find out how you actually feel?

    At any rate, Sokurov’s weirdest film is surely Mournful Unconcern, which is just crazy, but I think his best film which is weird is Days of Eclipse. It will not have widespread appeal, and it is so mysteriously wonderful that I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  2. I found 366 Weird Films site through Russian Ark and Tarkovsky fims and have set out wanting more and here I am. So Russian Ark isn’t in the top list? Catherine the Great needing a piss or the European visitor terrorizing a young lad with Saints looking on, oh and the smell of Formaldehyde! I don’t know anything about Art of High Art, but this needs to be in the list. Loved it

  3. I originally considered this film for my own list of suggestions for the site as well before I saw the complete list of reviews that are already there, but eventually I had the same doubts that it could be considered “too artsy” rather than truly weird.

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