sometimes witty book reviews
I have been saving this movie for myself for several months now. I first saw it come through the library returns chute at work last year and, having seen it come through the chute so very many times since I decided that it must be worth viewing.*
The DVD’s cover describes the sheer amount of effort demanded by this colossal work very simple: 2000 cast members, 3 orchestras, 300 years, ALL IN ONE TAKE. Filmed in the sumptuous Hermitage Museum in Moscow, Russian Ark walks the viewer through the seemingly endless passages, corridors, galleries and courtyards of the former winter palace. The movement is lead by a disembodied narrating voice who’s view the single-shot follows and his traveling companion, a French diplomat from the early nineteenth century. Almost every room takes us through another era of the building’s history, but not in chronological order. We ‘meet’ Catherine the great, the princess Anastasia, the current director of the museum, a couple at an imperial ball, the magnanimous conductor Sergey Gergiev, a man building his own coffin during the revolution, a nun shooing away a flock of young women dressed as nymphs, twenty-first century tourists inspecting the Hermitage collection, a blind art connoisseur gently appreciating the marble statues with her fingertips – and on, and on.
Director Aleksandr Sokurov’s self-imposed task was to not fear the passage of time. I believe he does this both temporarily with the detailed and serendipitous nature of the single-shot and through the jumbled order of moments. No great historical event occurs during the film. The tsar and his family are not assassinated – they are seen taking tea, Catherine the Great does not vanquish her enemies – she runs across a courtyard, frazzled courtier in tow, the revolution does not come to pass – two WWII navymen wonder through the galleries and comment of a Van Dyke. Russian Ark stretches time, folds it over and turns you around.
Viewing suggestion: Take a long walk down a busy street immediately after viewing. Every detail suddenly seems poised and magnificent. A gravy jug pouring it’s contents onto a steak, the flick of an old maitre d’s napkin over his arm, the poetry of a swathe of spotted skirt brushing against a lamp post…
*My fellow Australians will appreciate that Margaret Pomeranz gave this a five star rating: “It’s seductive, it’s beautiful, it’s amusing…totally exhilarating and surprisingly moving.”