As a story it doesn’t sound too fascinating: a 19th-century French diplomat (Sergei Dreiden) wanders round the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, followed by a disillusioned filmmaker (represented by the camera’s point of view and voiced by the film’s actual director, Alexander Sokurov); together they witness various scenes from Russian history as well as some of the Hermitage’s fabulous art collection. What distinguishes Russian Ark is that it is shot on High Definition in a single take.
At least, I think it is. It’s a well-publicised aspect of the film: Sokurov and his team spent months rehearsing, and performers and technicians alike had to coordinate their moves exactly so as to enable the huge task to be completed. The problem is, if you go into the film knowing that it’s a ‘one-take’ movie (and I can’t imagine anyone going to see it without knowing), then if you’re anything like me, you immediately start to look for the joins. You could call it cynicism or an inability to suspend disbelief; I prefer to think of it as healthy curiosity. And there are several moments where the take could have been broken, where the movie might have been knitted together, such as when the camera passes walls, allowing for the possibility of a vertical wipe, or when we close in on a painting, and digital trickery could have papered over a cut. It seems unlikely, though: new HD software was created to allow ninety minutes of continuous filming, and the result is so fluid and unstoppable, it gives the audience the effect of a disembodied trip through time.
Director Mike Figgis attempted something like this in Timecode (2000), which combined four single takes in a split-screen effect to portray the interconnections and steadily mounting dramas of a group of Hollywood lives. But still the viewer was able (and was encouraged) to watch one quarter of the screen at the expense of the other three, with the assistance of Figgis’ soundtrack. In Russian Ark there are no cuts, and consequently no editorialising beyond the limits of the frame itself.
So what’s the effect of this, as we witness Peter the Great giving his general a whipping, and snoop on the last Tsar family as they dine, oblivious to the revolution which is just around the corner? As a narrative it’s unconventional, to say the least; but as with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), images, sounds and moments gradually combine with the dislocated yet subtly cohesive logic of a dream. After a while wading through this museum, one’s mind might start to drift off – but the film is attempting something different than straightforward narrative pleasure. The music, a mixture of established works and Sergey Yevtushenko’s beautiful original score, carries us through the rooms; Dreiden’s diplomat beckons us on like the Wicked Witch of the West trying to behave; and what comes across is a fantasy journey through Russian history and culture, which, the film seems to be saying, must be preserved while the country’s identity is in a state of flux. It’s the virtual reality equivalent of an ‘audio tour’ – and every place of public interest should have one.
Russian Ark adds to the number of cinema films shot on non-celluloid formats, a group which includes such diverse works as George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Barbet Schroeder’s La Virgen de los Sicarios / Our Lady of the Assassins (2001). The former utilises the new approach principally to experiment with ambitious visual effects, while Schroeder pretty much had to shoot his film on lightweight HD because he was in a crime-ridden city in Colombia and the production was under threat. Sokurov has thrillingly combined this look to the future with one of the oldest entertainment forms of all – theatre. The continuous performance from a company is akin to a stage production – and in a way, this makes the achievement of Russian Ark slightly less of a tour-de-force than it first appears. And as a process, it’s one which we shall probably become more and more accustomed to seeing. But still, it’s a movie to be seen – or, perhaps, a movie to ‘observe’.