Russian Ark Review

Russian film-maker Alexander Sokurov is one of those directors whose work seems more written about than actually watched - despite an extensive filmography (fourteen features, twenty-one documentaries, all made over the last 25 years), only one of his previous films, 1996's Mother and Son, has ever had British distribution, and that also seems to be the only one available on DVD anywhere.

It's also pretty clear from the titles of his films alone - A Lonely Voice of Man (1978), The Degraded (1980), Painful Indifference (1983), as well as an ongoing series of poetic 'elegies' - that he's very much a personal artist in the mould of Andrei Tarkovsky rather than a mainstream commercial operator, and his new film Russian Ark consolidates that impression by being about the most uncompromising piece of arthouse cinema I've seen in ages. Which means that although I pretty much unreservedly loved it, casual viewers should approach with caution - this is conceptually rigorous, take-no-prisoners film-making with a vengeance.

The entire film is set in the Hermitage in St.Petersburg, one of the world's great museums (its only serious rival is the Louvre in Paris), and if reduced to bare-bones basics, you could describe Russian Ark as a guided tour around the building in the company of two protagonists: an unnamed Russian man of (we presume) the present day, and the 18th-century French aristocrat, the Marquis de Custine (a real-life character who was instrumental in building diplomatic bridges between France and Russia).

As they walk through the Hermitage (which includes the famous Winter Palace), they conduct a lively, often bickering conversation about what they're seeing - both coming from different points of view: the Frenchman knows nothing of what became of Russia in the last two centuries (and consequently assumes that Russian history and culture, along with the city of St Petersburg, are merely feeble imitations of their older, presumably nobler European counterpart), while the Russian can't possibly forget what's happened to his country, but has difficulty getting this across to his uncomprehending companion.

But in the course of their journey, they see much more than rooms, paintings and other artefacts, as the Hermitage is also full of thousands of people - not a remotely unusual situation for anyone who's tried to negotiate it in real life, but the crucial difference here is that they're figures from three hundred years of Russian history - not slotted into any particular time period: Catherine the Great, Alexander Pushkin and Soviet sailors rub shoulders with contemporary St Petersburg luminaries such as the conductor Valery Gergiev or the Hermitage's current director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, and many others that a non-Russian viewer couldn't possibly be expected to recognise. One room will feature Peter the Great chastising his officers, another a presentation of Persian dignitaries to Nicholas I, another a massive ball on the eve of World War I, still another a man making coffins for the victims of the Siege of Leningrad.

This will either be fascinating or frustrating depending on the individual viewer, because Sokurov (whose 1993 film Whispering Pages cut up works by major Russian writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, segueing from one to the other without identifying the joins or the sources) assumes not just a basic but a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the last three hundred years of Russian history and the history of Western art in general. To be blunt, if you don't know your Rubens from your Rembrandt, your Peter the Great from your Catherine the Great and your Nicholas I from your Nicholas II, I suggest you read up on them in advance, as the film won't help you. Sokurov does identify some of the various historical characters - but deliberately does it a few seconds after they've disappeared from the screen, with the narrator wondering "was that Pushkin?" after we've missed our chance to check for ourselves.

And many details are left out altogether - for me, there was a wonderfully shivery moment as the camera takes a decidedly Kubrickian rush down a corridor in pursuit of laughing princesses before ending up in a ghostly dining-room confronted by the ghastly haemophiliac pallor of Crown Prince Alexei - but unless you know who he was and how his illness led to the malign involvement of the self-styled monk Grigori Rasputin in the highest affairs of state, the effect is lost.

But is this a criticism of the film? Not really - because there's so much going on that the addition of explanatory footnotes (whether visual or verbal) would have run the risk of completely overloading the film to its detriment, in the manner of Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books. Sokurov takes an unashamedly elitist approach, but I don't think he had much choice - squeezing an almost inconceivably huge subject into a mere 98 minutes is inevitably going to require an approach more allusive than annotated. If this produces reactions along the lines that Russian Ark is one of the most boring films ever made (and it has done!), so be it - what you get out of it is entirely related to what you put in.

I mentioned Stanley Kubrick above, and for me the film that has most in common with Russian Ark is The Shining - not at all in terms of plot, but certainly in setting and style: the Hermitage comes across as a rather more lavish version of the Overlook Hotel, with rather more ghosts on offer. It's a decidedly spooky experience, because Sokurov seems to be treating the whole voyage (which starts just outside the Hermitage and ends up overlooking the turbulent Baltic Sea) as a feverish dream - nothing ever quite makes coherent sense.

The Marquis is played by the Russian actor Sergei Dontsov, but we never see his companion - or rather, we see what he sees, as we're effectively looking through his eyes. This approach works both visually and practically, as the fact that the camera is a human presence justifies the occasional moment when the actors occasionally glance at it. It also emphasises the first-person dream-like effect - which is intensified even more by the way Sokurov has chosen to shoot the film.

Russian Ark guarantees its place in film history books (and the Guinness Book of Records) not so much for its content but for its technical achievement - it's the first feature film to be shot in a single continuous take on a format of sufficiently high resolution to permit a (more than) acceptable transfer to 35mm and cinema screens. This is something that many directors - most famously Alfred Hitchcock in Rope - have long dreamed of pulling off, but the technical challenges have usually proved insurmountable. It's physically impossible to shoot more than a few minutes of film at a time (the camera's film magazine wouldn't accept any more), and the problem with video is that the image quality is very poor - Mike Figgis beat Sokurov by three years in terms of shooting a one-take feature in Timecode, but its low-resolution DV images aren't going to win any cinematography awards.

But the subject of Russian Ark demanded high-quality images, which effectively meant recording to a hard drive that had to be both high-capacity (uncompressed high-definition video requiring huge amounts of storage) and suitably portable. Although Sokurov had 100 minutes at his disposal, the downside was that that was all he had: each take would erase the previous one, and he had just four hours of shooting time in the Hermitage when the light was at the right level (they had a day in total to set up, light, shoot and complete the film) - the script was apparently as much of an architectural plan as anything else.

God alone knows how camera operator Tilman Büttner pulled it off: Steadicam operation is physically demanding enough even in short bursts, so having to lug a hefty rig around for over an hour and a half while constantly composing and recomposing the images to the director's satisfaction almost beggars belief. He'd deserve ten out of ten for the physical achievement alone, but he also pulls off a remarkable job in visual terms. True, not everything is immaculately lit - and in lower light there's a definite texture to the image that's decidedly unfilmlike - but at its best (which is often), Sokurov and Büttner's images are as beautiful and evocative as anything shot on a far more conventional schedule.

But is this ultimately just a show-off gimmick? I've often been sceptical about such long-take scenes in the past (and I'll always treasure the opening of Robert Altman's The Player, a nine-minute take that doubles as a satirical commentary on the way film-makers fetishise such efforts), but in the case of Russian Ark I think form and content achieve a perfect match. The absence of any editing means, by definition, the absence of any trickery - just as the film seeks to mix and match three centuries of Russian history, so the film seamlessly glides from era to era: our memories and dreams don't have cuts, so why should the film?

Frankly, Russian Ark is practically impossible to rate according to the standard DVD Times scoring system (there's no conventional 'plot' as such, for instance, and precious little in the way of 'acting') - so I've given it a perfect ten in every category for the sheer achievement alone: Sokurov carried this idea in his head for some fifteen years, worked everything out in the minutest detail, persuaded the Hermitage to co-operate (the concept wouldn't have worked without it, as there's no equivalent single building anywhere else in Russia), pre-lit 33 of its rooms, got two thousand actors together (and three live orchestras), mostly in period costume and shot the whole thing in one single take with everyone hitting their marks bang on cue. Not since seeing Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm have I spent so much of a film wondering "how the hell did they do that?"

It's worth seeing for the logistical feat alone (and undoubtedly a fair proportion of its audience will be coming out of curiosity) - but the real triumph of Russian Ark is that it's got far, far more to offer: repeated viewings aren't so much advisable as downright essential. It's a demanding, difficult film - but for those on the right wavelength, it's also an overwhelming one, with the kind of formal, philosophical and technical ambition that dwarfs almost anything else in current cinema. And it'll probably look great on DVD too, given its all-digital origins!



out of 10

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