Russkij kovcheg (Russian Ark) (2002)

Running Time: 96 minutes
Writers: Boris Khaimsky, Anatoli Nikiforov, Svetlana Proskurina, Aleksandr Sokurov
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov

It’s rare to see a film that almost perfectly embodies the dream-like experience of floating without restraint through time and memory, but Aleksandr Sokurov appears to have hit his creative peak with his latest and most groundbreaking film, Russkij kovcheg (Russian Ark).

I confess that this is my first Sokurov film and that I’m largely ignorant of Russian cinema, apart from a few of the standards such as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and the rather goofy Sadko (aka the Magic Voyage of Sinbad — pretty terrible, I should warn you, and nothing much to do with the Sinbad movies you may be familiar with).

First, let’s talk about this film. It’s a significant movie on many levels: it is the first feature-length film to be shot in a single, uninterrupted take (which alone is a remarkable achievement). It is also one of the first films of this length shot directly onto hard drive, bypassing film or videotape entirely. It is really difficult to get people to understand what an incredible feat this is, but I’ll give it another try. Close your eyes and imagine that it’s your job to carry a 60-pound rig on your shoulders for two hours as you climb stairs and follow actors from room to room through a huge Russian mansion and art gallery, with over 2000 actors in period costumes wandering in and out of the action you attempt to capture in a continuous, no-retakes-allowed story. The coordination, the timing, the mechanical effects, the lighting and sound — everything has to be perfect, and you’ll not be sure that you got everything or that everything worked until you’re done.

But ignoring the technical accomplishments of the film (which often overshadow the content in reviews), Sokurov has also crafted a mystical and enchanting dream-like film that meanders through time and history with serious and absurd shadings whose introspection and spectacle threaten to overwhelm the viewer. And even beyond that, the film is an elegy (one of Sokurov’s favourite forms, apparently) to the glory of Russion at it’s height, and a meditation on the past and future of the country and it’s culture.

It’s a difficult film to describe when one tries to summarise the “plot,” since there isn’t really a “story” to speak of: an unnamed, disembodied narrator (later possibly revealed to be a Marquis of some kind) finds himself in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg and drifts along through 33 rooms, countless priceless art treasures and witnessing several moments in Russian history. Indeed, a good grasp of Russian history and European art is almost essential to plumbing the depths of the film’s meaning, but anyone with a good overall grasp on world history will probably know enough to spot Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Czar Nicholas II and other significant figures from across 300 years of history flit in and out of the film as the narrator and his nameless French diplomat guide (played rather Doctor Who-ishly by Sergei Dreiden) and fellow time-traveller explore all that this cornerstone of Russian history and sensibilities has to offer.

The dialogue has layers of meaning, many of which were probably lost on me, but the ongoing debate between the narrator and the guide on how Russia has usurped a lot of its identity from the European countries it plundered was most amusing. As the film unfolds, we sense three main “levels” to the film — the first is something of a wandering tour of the place, the second is an appreciation of the simply unbelievable number of great artworks scattered throughout the property, and the third attempts to inject the elements of life and passion back into the history of the museum — people actually lived here, great events really happened here, and through the fog of time we catch glimpses of this in a way that a straightforward telling (“now in this room, a formal state apology was given to the King of Prussia blah blah blah”).

People who go to movies for simple, linear stories and fables are likely to be confused and totally out of their element with this film — it doesn’t make “sense,” things happen randomly and out of chronological sequence, and none of the characters are the slightest bit helpful in working out what is going on. But to try and impose a structure on the film is like trying to impose structure on a dream, for this film is a dream.

The climax of the film is one of the few I would truly call “breath-taking,” as in I found myself drawing in breath as the camera made its way through a stunningly faithful, large-scale formal ball in the Great Nicholas hall. Three orchestras are playing, thousands of people are dancing, soldiers soon to be killed and rulers soon to be overthrown — but that hasn’t happened yet (it’s 1913 as the film draws to a close), and this is the last gasp of the aristocracy at its full bloom and power.

It is no accident that as the party ends and we leave the Hermitage along with a class and generation of people who thought they and their ideas would live forever, the music dies away and we slowly find ourselves in a silent, empty fog — it’s a commentary on what became of the Revolution, and a powerful one at that. After over an hour of rich, beautiful European art treasures by El Greco and Rubens among hundreds of others, royalty and pageantry and theatre and excess of all sorts, the final images of wind and sea and desolation are jarring indeed.

This trailer may help prepare you for this astonishing cinematic voyage that is certainly unique in the annals of film, but if you can bring your sense of history and imagination to the cinema with you instead of the usual “just want to be entertained” mentality, a rich reward of life and art await you in the film “Russian Ark.” If at all possible, see this one in a theatre: its breadth vision will likely be constrained on a smaller screen.

My rating: Mandatory.

About chasinvictoria

Writer/Editor, Comic Performer, Doctor Who fan, radio DJ, Punk/New Wave/Ska fiend, podcaster, audio editor, film buff, actor, producer, leftie (literally and figuratively), comedian, blogger, teacher, smartarse, and motormouth. Not necessarily in that order.

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