Russian Ark (2002)

aka Russkiy Kovcheg

2008 #98
Alexander Sokurov | 96 mins | DVD | U

Russian ArkRussian Ark has received boundless praise from some quarters, and not just for being shot in a recording-smashing single take — to cite one review in particular, “anyone with an eye for beauty, a yearning for the past or a passion for pure cinema is going to be spellbound.”

Apparently some sort of artistic documentary on the history of Russia, told via a fantastical time-travelling-ish tour of a Russian museum, Russian Ark is certainly ‘artistic’. Unfortunately, it doesn’t teach you much and is at no point clear about what it’s covering. Perhaps a more detailed knowledge of Russian history would lend some meaning to the tableaus that are half-glimpsed as the Steadicam drifts by, though it spends as much time meandering down empty corridors in search of something to film as it does actually showing anything. When it does alight on something, the staging is occasionally spectacular, especially considering the self-imposed technical restrictions, but I gained little from this alone.

I freely admit this may say more about me than the film itself, but the most interesting parts were when the character whose point-of-view we inhabit and the French historian he encounters begin to discuss something that almost (almost) resembles a plot — how did they get there, how can the Frenchman speak Russian, can others see them, and so on. Sokurov merrily raises all these questions, in the process throwing a sci-fi dimension into his artistic-documentary-fantasy, but are there any answers offered? No, of course not — that’s not the point. Which does rather make you wonder why they’re vocalised at all…

Watching Russian Ark is a little like doing what the nominal lead characters do: wander aimlessly around an unfamiliar museum without any guide to what they see. Undoubtedly impressive, and worth seeing for the audacity of the single take, but I, unlike others, was far from spellbound.

2 out of 5

(Originally posted on 30th January 2009.)