There are few films in which time barrels forward as relentlessly as in Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark, and yet there are also few where it swirls so mysteriously. The forward motion comes from Sokurov's famous record-breaking filming method — given the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg to film in for one day, Sokurov devised a single, continuous 96-minute shot in which we follow an unseen narrator (voiced by Sokurov) and the French Marquis de Custine (Sergey Dreiden) as they weave their way through the museum's majestic halls and the choreographed movements of 2,000 extras and three orchestras.
The seconds tick forward, capturing the chronological truth of Sokurov's staggering logistical feat (it took three tries to get the full take), but our protagonists slip back and forth through time as they wander through the building. Peter the Great is in one room beating one of his generals, while the young princess Anastasia is scurrying down another hallway and a citizen of a besieged Leningrad is building his own coffin in a remote corridor. And in the film's stunning climax, the camera carefully navigates through a crowded 1914 ballroom full of dancers doing the mazurka.
If this sounds like a Night at the Museum-styled sampling of Russian history's greatest hits, rest assured that Sokurov's vision is far more idiosyncratic. There's certainly an innate grandeur to the Hermitage — the former residence of Russian tsars and current home to over three million works of art — and Sokurov also lavishes attention on the gilded lace of the intricate period costumes. But from scene to scene, Sokurov is as likely to undercut this grandeur as he is to exalt it — if this museum is the titular ark preserving the best of Russian history, Sokurov makes sure it's also packed with national neuroses and mundanities. (Not to mention the fact that Sokurov pointedly eschews Russia's most important contribution to cinema — the language of editing and montage that Sergei Eisenstein pioneered.)
We see Catherine the Great a few times, for example, but she's always running from the camera in search of a pot to piss in. And our egotistical French protagonist continually chastises our Russian narrator for what he sees as Russia's inferiority complex to Europe: In its art and architectural grandeur, the Marquis sees a tacky attempt to mimic Europe's own palaces. The narrator fires back, "You Europeans are democrats who mourn the monarchy." (The Marquis, who unlike the seemingly-invisible narrator can interact with the citizens of the past, flirts aggressively with Russian women as a response).
There is not really a narrative here beyond our bickering protagonists wandering along and happening upon history. If there's an emotional tow, it comes in the much hinted-at but rarely shown fact that there was a lot of historical horror that surrounded and eventually succeeded the beauty on display here. But the main attraction here is indeed the spectacular method. There's a school of thought which says that long takes are valuable because their extended gaze resembles reality more closely than the standard language of film. While that may be true in some cases, the gliding Steadicam often produces a different effect.
As critic Mike D'Angelo noted in a piece about Children of Men (a film with several boundary-pushing long takes), our perception is more herky-jerky than we might realize — every blink, every quick turn of the head functions more like a cut than a smooth motion. (Try quickly turning your head from one side to another, and see how much of the space in the middle you actually perceive). The smooth floating through the corridors of Russian Ark's museum, then, achieves something more like a surreal hyper-clarity — perhaps the perfect method to represent the sights our ghostly narrator sees.
And ghosts are really the heart of Russian Ark — as much as time's implacable movement in one direction is emphasized here, it's also made clear that the influence of the past is always with us, constantly delighting us with pleasant nostalgia and dismaying us with unpleasant traumas. Speaking about Russia in an interview after the film's release, Sokurov stated that "Our past hasn't become past yet — the main problem of this country is that we don't know when it will become past." Russian Ark suggests that it possibly never will, but it also suggests that if the horror lingers, so does the beauty.
Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov
At Cinestudio Nov. 24 – 26, Trinity College, 300 Summit St., Hartford, (860) 297-2463, cinestudio.org