Before I get into the details of Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2002 film Russian Ark, I implore you to stop reading my review and simply get a hold of the film and watch it. It’s a marvelous, rewarding, dreamy experience. That’s not a very convincing argument of course, but I think that the best way to see this gorgeous film is with no preconceptions, with as little information as possible–not because there are plot twists that a review might give away, but rather because the pleasure of Russian Ark is its narrative immediacy–and any review will seek to mediate that immediacy. So I’ve hemmed and hawed. If you need further convincing, read on.
It’s hard to know where to begin, so I’ll let Don DeLillo do it for me. In his latest novella, Point Omega, his filmmaker protagonist describes it as an ideal for the kind of truth he’d like to capture in one of his own films:
There’s a Russian film, feature film, Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov. A single extended shot, about a thousand actors and extras, three orchestras, history, fantasy, crowd scenes, ballroom scenes and then an hour into the movie a waiter drops a napkin, no cut, can’t cut, camera flying down hallways and around corners. Ninety-nine minutes.
That was enough for me to get hold of Russian Ark and watch it, or rather experience it (I think experience is the best verb here, corny as that sounds), but perhaps, gentle reader, you’d like some plot details. Let’s give it a shot. The film begins in darkness, with its unnamed/unseen protagonist describing the vague details of his last memory, a violent accident that he remembers little about. But before we go on, I should point out a few things: this protagonist is unseen because he is essentially the camera; his movement propels the film–is the film–and although he is his own character, he is also a surrogate for the audience. His first-person experience dictates the film, is the film, and although he has ghostly access to the characters who float through the gorgeous halls of the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, they cannot see or hear him. There is one character who can see him however, an unnamed black-clad 19th-century French aristocrat who the protagonist comes to call “the European.” Neither the European or the protagonist understand why they are in the Hermitage or how they got there; the European is even more perplexed to find that he now speaks perfect Russian. Unlike the protagonist, the European can interact with the denizens of the Hermitage, and interact he does, by turns offending, menacing, or charming (or at least attempting to charm) the characters that the pair encounters as they drift through the ballrooms, galleries, and courtyards of this beautiful palace. Initially, the European repeatedly insults Russian culture, which he believes a pale imitation of European aesthetics. He even protests that one of the fine orchestras that they stumble upon must be manned with Italian players, as Russian musicians simply couldn’t be so skilled. But as they wander the halls, the European slowly succumbs to the rich beauty and opulence of the Hermitage; although he never states it outright, he relents his prejudice against Russian culture, and perhaps even learns a new way of seeing beauty.
And who wouldn’t be moved by the beauty here? Russian Ark functions in some way as a guided tour of the Hermitage, although that term, “guided tour” implies a stuffiness that’s antithetical to the looseness of this film. The camera lingers on a painting or statue; the protagonist offers his thoughts, the European his; perhaps an erstwhile docent steps in to explicate a point of technique or symbolism. It’s wonderful. In one stunning moment (scene would not be the right word for this movie which is of course one long scene), the European argues violently with a boy over a painting of the apostles Peter and Paul. The boy admits to knowing nothing of the scriptures, yet he’s deeply moved by the wisdom and promise that the painting connotes; the European cannot understand how the painting’s aura alone can transmit its meaning to the ignorant lad. The scene begins at 6:38 in the clip below:
The European’s clash with the boy echoes the larger (and yet subtle) clashes of the film, as characters, artworks, and musical styles of different epochs float into or burst out of or parade around in the grand rooms of the Hermitage. There’s Pushkin, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Anastasia. There’s an incredible scene where Tsar Nicholas I is offered an apology by the Shah of Iran for the death of an ambassador; there’s a wonderful ballroom dance that moves the European to great joy. In one of the film’s pockets of horror, a layman labors in a strange utility room building his coffin; it is the siege of Leningrad in WWII where over a million people died at the hands of the Nazis. The European, of course, has no knowledge of these events, being after his time, and the disjunction between the protagonist’s contemporary perspective of history and his own provides for a fascinating, if not wholly fleshed out, conflict.
Indeed, one of the greatest pleasures of Russian Ark is its refusal to narrativize or philosophize history beyond a first-person perspective walk through the halls of the Hermitage. The movie erupts into little pockets of exuberant joy or strange, desperate violence; sometimes the protagonist is drawn in, but just as often he’s repelled, and looks for another avenue, like a dreamer willing his own escape. To call the movie dream-like would be an understatement, and like a dream, Russian Ark‘s divergent set pieces overwhelm the senses in their rich splendor. Like the protagonist and the European, I found myself repeatedly entranced by a painting or a concert or a dance or a strange little moment, only to be interrupted by another character intruding into the frame, bearing new information, discordant news that disrupts the dream logic (while paradoxically ushering in a new set piece). Russian Ark distracts its audience, sending them inward; in contemplation, the viewer loses the thread–but is there a thread? Is real life a narrative? Are dreams even narratives? Some of my favorite moments of the film happened when my anxiety at having been distracted by some gorgeous detail was confirmed by the protagonist, who all of a sudden has lost the European, or who is startled by the bustling arrival of new people. But of course, in this film, the viewer is the protagonist.
But writing about Russian Ark is no good, not really. You have to just see it (but I already said that, right?) To quote again from DeLillo’s Point Omega, “The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever.” Sokurov’s film collapses history and art and beauty into a beautiful, edifying, sometimes terrifying dream, a dream that, in its adherence to first-person perspective, is a marvelous approximation of true life. Highly recommended.