This review was written in one take.
“If the film receives the attention and understanding of a cultured public in Europe and Russia, then I will be proud. I will only be proud of the artistic result.”
—Director Alexander Sokurov
Our tale begins as a group of Russian aristocrats arrive at a palace in St. Petersburg. This is observed by an unseen individual, who follows them inside and through whose eyes we see the spectacle within. We follow this ghostlike narrator from room to room, encountering events and personalities from various eras of Russian history, often commented on by a visiting Frenchman (Sergei Dreiden). The journey concludes with an elaborate ball, both memorializing and bringing an end to the glory days of old Russia.
You’ve probably heard of Russian Ark. The movie’s big claim to fame is that the whole thing was filmed in a single take. One cameraman with a Steadicam made his way through the Heritage Museum in St. Petersburg as a huge cast of actors and extras played out the story from room to room. This is what has drawn most viewers to the film, amazed by questions of “How’d they do that?” It’s true that CGI was added on occasion to improve the lighting, and the audio was almost completely redone in post, but that one single 99-minute take remains unbroken.
The easy way to do this would be to create a dialogue-heavy film—just plop the camera in front of the actors and let them make with the drama for 99 minutes. Instead, director Alexander Sokurov attempts something far more ambitious, with the camera travelling through one of the world’s great museums, and with hundreds of actors in lavish period costumes performing, culminating with no less than an orchestra and dancing. The whole thing is visually rich, thanks in part to the locale, with something new around every corner.
For all its admirable ambition, Russian Ark is lacking in story. There’s really no plot or character arcs to speak of, just a tour through famous eras of Russian history. It’s a matter of context. How much you get out of this depends on how much you already know about Mother Russia. For example, when Tsar Nicholas I meets with the Shah of Iran, the movie’s not going to tell you that this is Tsar Nicholas I and the Shah, you’re already expected to know who they are and why this meeting is important. The Frenchman who keeps popping up is supposed to be the Marquis de Custine, who famously wrote about Russia. He’s not identified on screen, so instead it’s up you to recognize him simply based on what he’s saying. It could be argued that it’s good the movie doesn’t do a ton of exposition or handholding, but contextual issues reach ridiculous heights in a scene in which the Heritage Museum director plays himself in a scene, and we’re expected to already know who he is. Are museum curators big celebrities in Russia?
Russian Ark (Blu-ray) looks great, for the most part. The picture and colors can be overly soft at times, but that’s likely the intent of the filmmakers. The 2.0 stereo sound is decent, but lacks the punch a full-on DTS track would’ve had. The 45-minute documentary “One Breath” goes over all the trouble that went into making the movie, and all the times it almost came apart during filming, only to finally reach the finish line.
I wonder why, as of this writing, no other filmmaker has run with the idea of a “shot in one take” feature. Just imagine a taut thriller with a frantic hero racing against the clock, a gloomy haunted house where something gruesome could jump out of the shadows at any minute, or an outrageous musical comedy with song and dance numbers breaking out in real time. Until then, everybody should see Russian Ark at least once because of what a stunning technical achievement it is. I can’t imagine many repeat viewings, though, except for those audience members with an exhaustive interest in all things Russia.