Ark de Triumphe

I’ve been working for the past couple weeks with a prof at Carleton who is engaged in a big project on a film called Russian Ark, an unabashed “art film” which is well known, in cinephile circles, for having been made in one continuous 90-minute shot that moves through much of the world-famous Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.

That achievement – possible only thanks to current “film” (really, digital video) technology – has brought considerable acclaim to the film’s director, Alexander Sokurov, and though I’m not an expert in any aspect of film history, much less filmmaking, I was duly impressed by the way this unbroken-shot technique created a swirling, first-person perspective that was, after just a few scenes, impossible for me to distinguish from my own perspective. More than once, I found myself shifting in my seat or craning my neck to try and see around someone in front of me on the screen – as if I was standing there along the edge of, say, a colossal royal ball, not just watching a meticulous reconstruction of one.

Even more than the incredible feat of a single sustained feature film-length shot, though, I loved the movie’s arc. As some pissy reviewers have noted, Russian Ark has no true plot and very few guides that the viewer can use to decipher the action. But you don’t need much knowledge of Russian history to enjoy the spectacle of the scenes (any of the royal balls, or the incredible sequence in which an aging Catherine the Great insists on venturing into the frigid courtyard), to get wrapped up in the testy but partial conversation between the one main character and the unseen narrator, or – best of all – to enjoy trying to solve the puzzle of exactly what, if anything, is going on. (Try to track Pushkin and his wife through the movie, for instance, or to figure out why there are only one or two scenes set in communist-era Russia and none [as far as I could tell] after 1989.) If, ultimately, that “what” turns out to be “nothing and everything all at once,” then I think the movie has only succeeded in summarizing Russia’s – and everyone’s – history.

Extra: ten minutes of the film, including a few of the amazing strolls through incredible Hermitage corridors…

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