‘Russian Ark’ by Alexander Sokurov – a reaction

I titled this post a reaction instead a review because I’m not sure I’m qualified to review Alexander Sukurov’s 2002 arthouse classic Russian Ark. I saw it at the Siskel Center with a dear friend of mine, who has seen this film and praised it to the skies.

So the plot – as much as I can figure out – is about an anonymous European (Sergei Dontsov) who wanders through the rooms of the White Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum. Clad in fitted black jackets and sporting heels that Prince would covet, the European passes through the different parts of the Hermitage Museum, while the camera is following him – the most noted aspect of the film is that it’s shot in one, long, continuous take – the whole hour and a half is one sequence. It’s pretty impressive, and my friend and I were trying to figure out how the camera was able to follow the European, and not look shaky or hand-held. Then I looked it up online and learned that the director was using a Steadicam – which sounds like a made-up thing, but is actually a camera that is a type of mount that keeps the camera steady (hence the name) even if it’s being operated by hand-held.

Obviously the rooms are gorgeous – in a way that’s almost too much. It feels a bit like the viewers are on a tour, and the European breaks the fourth wall to talk to the director, who asks questions and interacts with his main character.

During the tour, we not only see the beautiful rooms, but we also run into some historic figures including Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Tsar Nicholas I, Tsar Nicholas II and his family (including the doomed princess Anastasia). Catherine the Great, in particular, is interesting in the film – a somber, confused woman, who, in a haunting scene, emerges into a snowy courtyard with one of her aides and starts to run through the gardens, despite her weight and age.

Not only does the European observe historic figures, but he also interacts with some anonymous museum patrons – from various eras. He accosts a blind woman, and takes her to a gallery, where the two discuss Anthony van Dyke. The European also accosts a teenager whose lack of piety annoys him. The most poignant sequence has the European utterly charmed by a beautiful older woman who talks to the paintings, but quickly dashes away.

A lot of the film is fantastic shots of crowds – in one scene we see the Shah of Iran apologizing to the Russian court for the assassination of diplomat Aleksander Griboyedov (an interesting scene for me because the friend I was with has family in Iran). There are also lots of fantastic party scenes – the ball sequences are a wonder. There is some stunning choreography, which the European participates in half-heartedly.

I had some issues following the gist of the movie, though there is something very magnetic and watchable about Sergei Dontsov. He’s not classically handsome and with his spindly physique, cloaked in a long black coat, and mop of curly hair, he looks like he stepped out of a Tim Burton film. The European is understood to be a ghost of some kind, a survivor of some kind of unnamed accident. I found Donstov compelling and found myself drawn into his moody ruminations, despite the difficulty of the plot.

Would I recommend Russian Ark? Yes, I would, but with reservations – when you go to see it, make sure that you with a open mind – I mean, really open, as if you were scalped. I also suggest that you follow up Russian Ark with repeated viewings, because I still feel like I missed a lot.

It’s interesting that I went to see Russian Ark, because I have a weird view of the country right now because of all the anti-gay violence that has stemmed from the anti-gay law that passed outlawing gay-friendly “propaganda.” I don’t think boycotting Russia is a good idea, nor do I think it makes sense – how do you boycott a country? But it’s a great antidote to the ugly press Russia’s been getting lately – it’s a wonderful reminder of the beauty that Russia is capable of – the art, both visual and performance. And though the movie was hard to follow, I left with a full heart – as if I saw unadorned and unfiltered beauty.

Some great moments to note:

  • There is a great scene with Anastasia, dressed like a wood nymph, dancing  and giggling with other little girls – they dash through the stunning hallways with ballet-like grace.
  • I mentioned it in the review, but it bares repeating: the gorgeous moment when the European approaches the beautiful old lady (who must’ve been a dancer in her youth) and the two have a short exchange, before she dashes off with kisses in the air.
  • The final sequence is very well-done – the camera goes in a very tight close up with party goers as they patiently file out of the ballroom in a thick, crowded mob.
  • The costumes are stunning.
  • The original score by Sergey Yevtushenko is stirring and brilliant – I looked for the soundtrack and couldn’t find it (though his 2009 work for The Last Station is available on amazon.com).

Click here to buy Russian Ark on amazon.com.

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Filed under commentary, DVD, movie, movie review, Nonfiction

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