Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark was filmed as one continuous 96-minute take, with absolutely no cuts whatsoever. As a cinematic experiment, this is one of the most breathtaking films that I have ever seen. As a cinematic experience, it is definitely one of the most ethereal and challenging films in recent memory.
Throughout Russian Ark, we see the action through the eyes of an invisible narrator, a ghost from a distant past, who wanders aimlessly through the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in the 1800s with a fellow specter, called The European – who is loosely based on a French traveler, the Marquis de Custine.
As the two spirits drift from room to room, they witness several events from Russia’s history playing out right before their very eyes. On this journey, they will peer into the lives of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas I. Oftentimes, they will find themselves wandering through the museum as present day visitors ponder over the many works of art. Few people are able to see the two men – and those who do appear to detect the scent of formaldehyde lingering in the air. The European is a lively and temperamental character who insults the Russians and their supposed lack of originality in the arts, and constantly flirts with the many women that he comes across. Our narrator seems ill at ease and lost, unstuck in time, while finding comfort in The European’s presence.
The film comes to a climax during a sumptuous 12-minute ball sequence, in which the two spirits part ways, and the film ends on a haunting note that left me with cold chills. As the credits roll, you feel as if you have awakened from a dream. Even though I’m not as schooled in the area of Russian history as others may be, the film still left an impression on me. It’s not so much the subject matter that stays with you, as it is the lingering sense of mystery that the film leaves you with. There will be those who find the film tedious and gimmicky, and it would be easy to categorize it as such, but I believe that this would be wrong. If you allow Russian Ark to carry you away, to pull you into its fantastical and creepy trance, you will not be able to shake it off – and this is precisely why the film works.
This is not a film for everyone, but those who are willing to devote an hour and a half of their lives to this film will find it a rewarding experience from both a technical and artistic standpoint.