Russian Ark

June, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Alexander Sokurov

Starring:Sergei Dontsov

Concept movies, (those in which some film technique becomes integral to the unfolding of the storyline) are hard to make-and equally hard to take. Robert Montgomery, the matinee idol of the 30's and 40's, once directed a filmed version of Raymond Chandler's classic whodunit Lady in the Lake by having the hero not only narrate the film, but using the camera's viewpoint throughout the entire film: (the audience sees the narrator only when he looks in a mirror). This effect, while initially interesting, took over the film and its limitations became an unsupportable burden on the action, dragging the movie down into an annoying exercise in style.  The contemporary crop of Dogma directors, (a group of Scandinavian film-makers) with their proscriptions against artificial lighting, post-production sound tracks and insistence on hand held cameras, etc run the same risk Montgomery did; turning dramatic storytelling into technological gimmickry.

Alas, this same curse dooms the best intentions of Russian Ark, Alexander Sokurov's ambitious attempt to blend 300 years of Russian history with a dizzying tour of The Hermitage that country's premier museum. Using over 2000 actors, two orchestras and almost every square inch of that marvelous structure, the director takes his audience on a 96-minute sojourn through pre-Revolutionary Russia in a single camera "take". The planning and execution of this effort must have been enormous--the sheer co-ordination of the actors, not to mention daunting sound and lighting challenges-- and yet….

What beings with some confusion, (and ends, it must be said, with great fluidity) is a doomed effort to mix art appreciation and history at such breakneck speed that the audience soon feels that its on Japan's bullet train or the TGV in France; images go by so quickly they blur into an unrecognizable mess. In order to provide some continuity, the director provides a roving reporter of sorts; the Marquis, a French nobleman. He chats irritatingly with an off-screen narrator to provide a running commentary on the images the camera glides over in such dizzying fashion that continuity gets lost all to quickly. Think MTV music video in 19th century costumes; alas, what works in 3-minute vignettes doesn't sustain our interest over an hour and a half plus.

My grasp of events and personalities in Russian history just isn't extensive enough to appreciate what I'm sure more the more knowledgeable could take from this sweeping look at so many things Russian, but even the most ardent fan will suffer from cinematic motion sickness from the sheer volume of swooping, gliding, soaring, shifting and slithering going on. The final set piece, a lavishly produced formal state ball, is truly gorgeous, and an excellent vehicle for Sokurov's technique; but it arrives at such a late point in the proceedings that his viewers are already glassy-eyed with exhaustion.

The verdict? An ambitious effort, beautifully crafted, but this one really works best as a film-school PhD thesis.

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