Saturday, November 20, 2010

Russian Ark

Russian Ark is probably the strangest film I have seen. Dogville is a close contender but I couldn't watch pass the first ten minutes of it. So Russian Ark is the most unusual film I have seen from start to end. It is one of those films that is better talked about than watched. And indeed, the "Making of the Film" feature in the DVD is more interesting than the film itself.
I read about the film on a blog and the blogger listed Russian Ark as his top 10 films EVER. In addition, Roger Ebert wrote that this film is "one of the most astonishing films ever made." It was also one of the films in competition at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. What more? The film is done in one single take--basically a 96 minute long take. Sounds pretty amazing to me!
The Russian Ark as referred to in the title is the Hermitage Museum housed in the Winter Palace. It contains Russia's history, culture, and art. It was a place of opulence during the time of the monarchy, struggle during the time of war, and pride as it is today for the Russian people. The film's goal is to show us all of this.
The plot of the film (or rather the lack of plot) is what really makes it strange, and it is also my chief complaint. There really is no plot. And what there is is a cursory journey through Russian history with little explanation. We are simply dumped into Russian Ark with a pretty bad guide/protagonist. This guide--the most unattractive guide with the worst wig and breathing noise--who takes us through the palace then museum by a kind of seamless time travel that spans over 300 years. What we see are incidents that happened in the past (many historical events which I have no knowledge of or people who I did not recognize making the experience meaningless to me), the beauty of the architecture, the art that is housed there, and the people who lived there.

While it is a pretty bewildering journey, what is astonishing is the technical, filming aspect of the movie. Done in one 96 minute single take, it is an incredible technical achievement. It is seamless, beautiful, and dramatic. The camera movement is fluid and enchanting. It is a feast for the eyes. Ultimately, it is an experimental film that is an art piece. And with art pieces, they can be hard to understand.

My favorite sequence of the film.

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