Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

50 years, 50 films: Russian Ark (2002)

On our journey through the last half-century, we greet one of the great experiments in cinema

Sun, Mar 16, 2014, 19:28


If you felt so minded you could — as several bright critics noted at the time — see Alexander Sokurov’s mighty formal experiment as a bit of a joke at the expense of Russian cinematic history. Back in the silent era, directors such as Sergei Eisenstein built immortal reputations by perfecting the new art of montage: that’s to say editing together shortish shots for an array of narrative or tonal effects. Think of the much-discussed Keleshov Effect in which, by cutting images of food, a girl in a coffin or a young woman, into footage of an actor, the character can seem variously hungry, heartbroken or lascivious.

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What better way of subverting that technique than shooting a feature film in one continuous take? Such experiments had, of course, been faked before — notably in Hitchcock’s Rope — but it required the new digital technology to actually shoot a sequence that lengthy. Sokurov could, of course, have shot a nice little chamber drama whose only challenges would be flubbed lines. That is not what he did. The mighty Russian Ark takes an unnamed narrator on a journey through the Hermitage Museum — once the Winter Palace — in Saint Petersburg as he recalls  Peter the Great, Nicholas I, Nicholas II and the great siege during second World War. Everything you see actually took place before the camera. Frankly, the whole thing seems more than remarkable. It seems utterly impossible. But here it is: a seamless sweep through 300 years of Russian history. It’s beautiful, bewildering and constantly mystifying. The museum’s treasures are gorgeous. The actors commit themselves admirably.

One might, reasonably, ask if the film relies too much on what could be seen as a high-end gimmick. That potential montage gag aside, what exactly is the point of the single take? Well, the unstoppable rush of the picture  gets some sense of the continuous drift of Russian history. We like to break a nation’s story into eras and dynasties. Russian Ark puts the epic into a single stream of information. But it’s also gorgeous in itself. The proper composition of shots is one of cinemas key arts. Russian Ark is to the shot as  In Search of Lost Time is to the novel. Look what we can do? Like Proust’s book, the film doesn’t really lead anywhere. Once the job has been carried off, nobody needs to do it again.

Sadly, were the film made today (only a decade or so after its release) it would be hard to convince viewers that digital manipulation had not played a part. As it stands, the film does — let’s not pretend otherwise — gain added appeal from the questions it poses about logistics. How did they do that? Can that be real? One of cinemas’s great marvels.

For 2002 we also considered Far From Heaven, Talk to Her, City of God, Adaptation, Spider-Man, 24-Hour Party People, Irreversible, Punch-Drunk Love and The Man Without a Past.