Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Before I Die #535*: Russian Ark (2002)

The heady quotes on the movie poster are
not, I assume you, overblown. 
*This is the 535th film I've watched from the 1,162 films listed in the "Before You Die" publications (the editors recently added another 13 movies to the list, 10 of which I've already seen). Hence the jump from my previous entry on The English Patient, film #525 based on old list. And now...

Original Russian Title: Russkiy kovcheg

Director: Aleksandr Sokurov

It's an amazing film, if more for its technical feats and setting than the actual "story" that is told.

Russian Ark is told from the perspective of an unseen, first-person narrator who we assume is a ghost roaming through the famous Winter Palace in the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. From this view, we soon meet a European "traveller," who seems to also be a wandering ghost of sorts, one who is highly cultured and lived in the 19th century. These two characters make their way through the Museum's many rooms, with each room being inhabited by various peoples from different time periods within the Museum's 250-year history.

For the first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie, part of the fun is puzzling out who the narrator and "The Traveller" are and why they are on this journey. Once that game is over, though, it's really all about the museum and the people we come across. The Museum is, truly, a marvel of architecture and lavish design. If you've ever taken pleasure from simply strolling through a large, classically-designed building, then this movie has plenty to offer you.

The chronology of the movie can be dizzying, as it is far from linear. As the travellers go from room to room, time may jump forward 200 years, backward 20 years, or any span in between. The result is an engaging mental exercise of piecing together which time frame we viewers are in, either from the people's clothing or speech. This does, alas, only hold the attention for so long, which is where the lack of a single clear narrative can be a bit of a weakness.

"The European," marvelling at the Hermitage Museum. There
is far more where this comes from, and the ceaselessly but
gently moving camera guides us through it all.
It is clear, though, that a single clear narrative was not Sokurov's intention. His subject was not the story of any single person or even groups of people, but rather the Museum itself and how it embodies nearly three centuries of Russian people's ideals and history. And more than any single costume, piece of art, or work of architecture, the way the film is shot and presented is the true marvel. The entire 99-minute work was done with one - one, mind you - sustained Steadicam shot. No pauses. No breaks. No little tricks of editing, such as the ones used by Hitchcock in Rope. When you think about the planning and choreography that must have gone into such a feat, it truly is astounding.

When one asks whether this single-shot approach was a choice of style or greater purpose. I think a bit of both, but more the latter. Since time is a major element of the presentation, it is reasonable to assume that the unbroken flow of the shot is reflective of the unbroken flow of time itself. The journey from room to room is, as would be the case during a real museum tour, a non-linear look at history. Whatever the case, it can be marvelous to simply watch how the lone camera leads us through the ever-morphing cast and setting.

Some will certainly find the movie rather dull, or at least too nebulous to penetrate. I can't completely dismiss this, but I would suggest that anyone even somewhat passionate about the art of film itself ought to check this one out.

535 movies down. 627 movies to see before I die...