reviewed by Ken Hanke
Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark accomplishes the not inconsiderable feat of being both fascinating and tedious at the same time. Conceptually, the film is brilliant. Technically, it’s a marvel. Dramatically, it’s about as much fun as an evening with an insurance salesman.
By now you probably know the idea: a film in one continuous take that avoided cuts by taking advantage of the capabilities of digital photography. The only movie I can think of that’s like it is Hitchcock’s brilliant tour de force, Rope. But Rope was made in 1948, and at that time, the best Hitch could manage was unbroken 10-minute takes (since that was as much film as a camera could hold). Hitchcock’s aims were also quite different: He was taking a play and capturing its essential theatricality in a radical experiment — and doing so on a carefully controlled soundstage.
That’s not Sokurov’s tack — and had it been, his movie might have been better entertainment. The central problem with Russian Ark is that it’s never more than a concept, and no matter how brilliant that idea may be, it isn’t exactly compelling to witness. All you have is a never-seen time-travelling visitor (voiced by Sokurov) witnessing little vignettes of Russian history as he goes through St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum in the company of a catty, xenophobic French Marquis (Sergei Dontsov). The camera becomes the eyes of the visitor, making the film a 96-minute point-of-view shot.
This effect ties Russian Ark to another late-1940s experiment, Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake, where the entire film — apart from talking-head cutaways to the main character as narrator — is from the point of view of detective Philip Marlowe. In fact, Russian Ark’s dreamlike atmosphere feels more like Lady in the Lake than it does Rope.
Dreamlike is probably the word that best describes Sokurov’s film. But it’s a very languorous dream — though fleshed out with several breathtaking moments. A glimpse of an elaborate play being staged by Catherine the Great (Mariya Kuznetsova) culminates in an amazing bit of spectacle, as does the justly-praised grand ball that climaxes the film. At the same time, I defy anyone not to be at least a little bored by an extended sequence where the Marquis enthuses over a Sevres dinner service — making it impossible not to realize that were it not for the film’s central conceit of an unbroken take, no one would be making a fuss over it. In other words, Russian Ark is at bottom a stunt film, however impressive the stunt.
It often seems less an exercise in filmmaking than of extended choreography — and if you take the film on this level, you’re more apt to enjoy it. The only dramatic tension comes from the sense of how a misstep from cameraman Tilman Buttner or a blown line could bring the whole production crashing down — and that’s not an adequate substitute for caring about the characters or their fates.
At best, the story line — or more correctly, the event line — is an academic exercise of questionable depth that stops just shy of attaining the pseudo-intellectual prattle of a film like My Dinner With Andre or Waking Life. Blessedly, Sokurov sidesteps this by showing a playful approach to the whole enterprise. At the same time, his playfulness smacks a little of the kind of governmental control that used to be standard practice with Soviet films — a reticence to say anything that might reflect badly on Mother Russia.
That said, Russian Ark boasts enough striking imagery — some of it positively haunting — and is such an astonishing logistical feat that it becomes a must-see event of a film for anyone who cares about the cinematic art.