Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Starring: Sergei Dontsov and thousands upon thousands of others.
Some films are must see films because of iconic performances. Some, because of the fantastic stories they tell. Still others are considered must see films because of some sort of profound technical achievement. Russian Ark, originally included in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die but cut in subsequent years, earned its must-see status due to the latter.
The unseen central character of the film wakes up and finds himself in the nineteenth century at the Russian State Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg. He follows in some aristocrats there for a party, but apparently they cannot see him. The only person who can see him is a stranger dressed in black (Dontsov) who, like our central character, is an apparent time-traveler, and French. The man in black leads our character through the Hermitage, in and out of rooms, in and out of different centuries, all while discussing Russian art and culture from the last five hundred years.
Russian Ark’s selling point is that it was shot entirely in one take. One very long take walks us through one of Russia’s national monuments. Impressive. I would never dare to say it wasn’t. Unlike other movies that flirt with the “one-take” status (like Rope), Russian Ark is legitimately one take, not four that are secretly cut together. The fact that the camera moves so much in this one take is, frankly, astounding. We don’t just walk through art galleries, we go upstairs and downstairs, outside and back indoors, through long halls and tiny winding staircases. The camera is extraordinarily mobile, and fluid in its mobility as well. This is a damn impressive feat of camerawork. Ditto for the choreography. There are thousands of people in this film, and the fact that the camera can move from a hall where soldiers are lined up and the royal court is receiving visitors, to the next hall where modern visitors are admiring paintings, to a ballroom with a live orchestra with dozens of dancers waltzing together shows profound organization. I cannot imagine how many hours went into practicing and dress rehearsals. Apparently, the Hermitage Museum only allowed Sokurov a single day’s access to the place, and they only had time for two takes. Everyone would have to be extraordinarily prepared in order to make the most of that opportunity.
Unfortunately, my praise for the film will stop there. As awesome as it is in technical achievement, I can’t say that the story that accompanies this flashy show are all that fascinating. There is no real story here; granted, I don’t particularly mind that, some of my favorite films are not about plot or narrative. However, the conversations between our narrator and the man in black are slightly confounding and not terribly interesting. I love talking head movies, but what the heads say should be interesting. It’s, well, it’s not in Russian Ark.
In terms of visuals, the film is rather sumptuous. Most of the time, the extras are representing people from the nineteenth century, and the costumes are gorgeous. I appreciated the contrast in the different rooms in the Hermitage. Some were bright white, windowed from floor to ceiling, while others were replete with wood paneling and dark colors. Russian Ark is nothing if not a great advertisement to go visit the Hermitage.
I will say this, though, about my personal history: I grew up in a school system where I had to take two years of American history, but zero years of world history. As a science major in college, I had little interest in taking Russian history classes there. My knowledge of the history of Russia is miniscule. I have a handle on the major developments in the twentieth century, but that’s about it. As I watched Russian Ark and different historical characters came on the screen, I couldn’t help but feel that I would appreciate certain parts a lot more if I knew more about these people. There was one scene in particular where three men were furtively discussing something. I couldn’t help but feel as if I was supposed to know who these men were in order to appreciate the fact that they were whispering. I had no clue. The scene was lost on me.
I can’t help but feel disappointed by Russian Ark. I heard about it years ago and it sounded fascinating; a 90-minute-long single take that takes you on a tour of Russian history and culture through a museum? Sounded interesting to me. It just plain wasn’t. I was bored. I found the man in black character bizarre, and I felt left out of the loop by a great many vignettes (which, I agree, is not a fault of the film but my own personal education). Is Russian Ark impressive? Absolutely; its technical achievements are astounding. Is Russian Ark compelling? Sadly, no. And I really thought it would be. Another unfortunate example of how my slightly inflated expectations led to a letdown.
Arbitrary Rating: 5/10