Every shot in Russian Ark looks like a painting, which is deliberate, though it is perhaps more accurate to say the shot in Russian Ark looks like many different paintings, because Russian Ark was shot all in one hour-and-a-half take.
The content of the film comprises a three-hundred-year trip through Russian history, all contained in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, often jumping around both forwards and back, and much of it has a very War and Peace vibe. For anyone only casually familiar with Russian history (like me) it can be a little hard to follow on visuals alone, though some characters are named and some are iconic—Pushkin, Catherine II, Peter the Great and Nicholas II and his family all make appearances. The costumes are incredible and the staging and cinematography almost hypnotic, but the content is by no means what makes Russian Ark special.
Some films deserve consideration for putting art ahead of practicality; Boyhood was one, not compromising to timescale and instead waiting for its star, Ellar Coltrane, to grow up over some eleven years. Russian Ark is similar, relying on thousands of extras to get everything right (or at least, right enough) in a single shot.
Ostensibly, this is because it’s shot in the first person, from the point of view of an unidentified time traveller who walks (or floats?) through the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg and whose voice we hear through narration. Soft, deep and considered, director Alexander Sokurov narrates the film personally, and in a sort of double twist, the perplexed questions of the voiceover mirror those a first-time viewer will inevitably ask (“Where am I?”; “Who’s that?”; What year is it?”). The fourth wall breaks regularly as a result, with characters looking at and addressing the viewer-protagonist, and heightening the voyeuristic effect.
“Russia is like a theatre”, a character says at one point, but here the roles of actor, director and audience are all rolled into one. At another moment, the narrator urges “Shh! Don’t betray our presence” whilst watching some sort of pageant. There’s a hint of the absurdity and performance almost reminiscent of a film like Amadeus, and the surrealism is ratcheted up technically by pushing and pulling focus mid-shot; it’s almost dizzying at times.
Other films have been shot in the first person, such as Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, but they did so with trickery and editing rather than a single unbroken take. It’s knowledge of this undertaking and commitment to craft that makes Russian Ark so compelling. It’s a little like John Ruskin’s argument in the 19th century that out of two identically carved ornamental stone capitals, one made by a craftsman will be infinitely superior than one made by a machine because of the attention and dedication it represents.
In short, it’s a film about about the transportative effect of visiting a museum, and of art; retrospectively that makes even more sense given Sokurov’s latest film, Francofonia, which is set in the Louvre. Let’s bring him to the V&A next. Or maybe Hampton Court.