Are you interested in beauty, or only its representation?

from Russian Ark

Conceivably the most brilliant and important foreign-language film that will play the Triangle this year, Alexander Sukorov’s Russian Ark contains innumerable marvels, yet its primary fascination can be easily described: It is the first feature in movie history to be comprised of a single shot, a shot that takes the viewer on an extraordinary, dreamlike journey through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Lest that make it sound like a mere technical stunt wedded to a fancy museum tour, let me emphasize that Sukorov’s dazzler is a triumph of imagination and craft on every level, as singular a work of art as any on the walls of the Hermitage.

The film’s technical side, though, is breathtaking purely on its own. Movies haven’t been made in single shots before because cameras use reels that generally can’t contain more than 12 minutes of film. Russian Ark was made possible by a confluence of new technologies, primarily high-definition digital video, which results in an image comparable to fine-grained film, and an advanced computer hard drive that allows all the information to be stored during the film’s shooting.

Even so, what’s amazing here is not the technology but the film’s execution. If you’ve ever seen a movie being filmed, you know that even shots lasting only 10 or 15 seconds usually have to be repeated several times because of technical mistakes, an actor flubbing his lines, or other problems. In Russian Ark, the shot runs 89 minutes and encompasses elaborate movement through miles of galleries and ballrooms, as well as the activity of hundreds of actors and three symphony orchestras(!), and it all comes off without a hitch.

To take this challenge almost to the point of absurdity, Sukorov and company had to accomplish their single shot in one take, because the Hermitage declined to close its doors to the public for more than a day. How did they do it? Well, they rehearsed in other spaces for months on end, working out every movement of actors and camera down to the finest details.

Still, the gods of cinema must have wanted this movie to happen, because Sukorov and his wizardly director of photography, Tillman Buttner (a German who shot Run Lola Run) , pulled off what has to be the most complex and amazing feat of camera choreography in the history of movies. Honestly, I don’t know that I’ve been as impressed with a movie on a technical level since I encountered 2001: A Space Odyssey at Raleigh’s old Ambassador Theater in 1968.

Russian Ark opens outside the Hermitage as people in 19th century dress, dashing officers and their beautiful ladies, make a jumbled, high-spirited entry to the palace. The first words we hear are, “I open my eyes and I see nothing. I only remember there was an accident …”

Throughout the movie we are looking through the eyes of the man who utters these words–the Narrator. We never learn much about him other than that he’s Russian, but we quickly gather he has just died and awakened in this place. He soon meets the movie’s other main character, a caustic French writer-diplomat named Custine (Sergei Dreiden) who’s been dead much longer.

Custine (an actual historical figure who left memoirs of his time in Russia) also seems to have no idea why his spirit is suddenly in this palace, which he’d visited in life. (At first he thinks he’s “in Chambord, under the Directoire,” only to be told, sadly, that Russian’s own Directoire lasted 80 years.) Yet the Frenchman quickly begins to serve as the Narrator’s Virgil, leading him on an excursion through the Hermitage during which they cross paths with modern museum-goers as well as figures such as Catherine the Great and Czarina Anastasia.

With his black frock coat, upswept hair and theatrical manner, Custine is a witty, entertaining guide, mixing dollops of aesthetic appreciation and historical observation with barbed comments about all things Russian. Sometimes he converses with the people he encounters; at other times he and the Narrator remain invisible to others.

As its almost ceaselessly moving hand-held camera negotiates an endless succession of gorgeous rooms, the movie has the feel of a mysterious odyssey, a voyage into history and memory unlike any other. The first time through, simply watching it is intoxicating. Yet Russian Ark is also the first film I’ve seen in ages that grows more fascinating on repeat viewings, which allow one to get a better sense of its multi-leveled meanings–another thing it shares with 2001.

Regarding these meanings, the initial tip I would offer first-time viewers is to notice how the film seems organized according to the principle of twos, or doubleness. No doubt this is because Russian Ark is deliberately self-reflexive–a work of art that is also a work about art–thus every image also produces or implies its reflection.

Notice, in any case, how many of its elements occur in twos, beginning with the two main characters (including a Narrator who says that he’s a Gemini!) and the implications of the film’s two-word title. The first of numerous biblical allusions, “ark” suggests two primary referents–Noah’s Ark as a physical refuge from ruin, the Ark of the Covenant as a vessel of communal values–both of which apply to the Hermitage and Russian Ark itself.

With its sinuously musical flow, the film might be said to unfold in movements, like a symphony. Yet, apropos the principle of twos, I think it also divides into halves that reflect the Hermitage’s dual identity as a present-day museum and the former home of Russia’s czars: The first half, where Custine tours the museum’s picture galleries, might be titled “art” while the second half, which transpires mainly in the palace’s state apartments and ballrooms, might be called “history.”

The theme of Russian identity predominates throughout and in the first half centers around another duality: Russia and Europe. As he begins looking at paintings, aware that St. Petersburg itself was created as a European city in Russia, Custine superciliously remarks that the czars “were Russophiles, but drawn to Italy,” and that Russian art is never more than imitative and second-rate.

The idea here, which filters throughout the film, is that culturally Russians are bifurcated, forever obliged to see themselves through both Russian and European lenses. But as for the putative corollary that Russian art is necessarily inferior, I would say Russian Ark itself constitutes a witty riposte to that, since it’s easily as accomplished as any European “art film” of late, and perhaps even more impressive as a vessel of European tradition both cultural and cinematic.

The film’s first half also presents various casually articulated arguments about art, all of which redound on the filmgoer. Is Sukorov’s movie an elaborate allegory which those not versed in Russian history can’t hope to understand? It’s easy to suspect as much, given its dense and playful allusiveness. Yet I think the film answers this question in a scene where Custine examines paintings in which different elements symbolize certain things (e.g., a chicken means avarice), and we’re reminded that we have left this world of settled symbolism.

So, unlike The Odyssey or the Divine Comedy, Russian Ark doesn’t emerge from a culture of cohesive meanings. Rather, it belongs to the dispossessed tradition of modernism and–like The Waste Land, or Ulysses, or The Cantos–looks back on those lost cultures from a perspective that is inevitably eclectic and idiosyncratic.

The film exhibits a similarly playful way with meaning when it comes to cinema aesthetics and history. I admit I laughed when Custine complained of a painting of Saint Cecilia being hung next to The Circumcision of Christ. This must be the most droll swipe ever at Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage, the cornerstone of Soviet cinema (it’s doubly funny if we read Custine as a stand-in for another French Catholic writer, Andre Bazin, whose theories overthrew Eisenstein’s).

Sukorov inhabits this territory very comfortably. He knows that he’s giving new meaning to Dziga-Vertov’s idea of the “Kino-Eye” and that, as Hitchcock proved in Rope (a film crafted to look like it was made in one shot), Eisenstein’s idea of intellectual montage didn’t depend on editing in any case. Yet looming over all this is the rueful irony that Russian Ark may be cinema, but it is not film, and therefore it can only refer back to an art defined by a now-vanishing technology.

The nostalgia endemic to that position (like Custine, the film is a ghostly visitor at the ball) also infuses the movie’s second half, where the dialectic between Europe and Russia gives way to another: Public versus private. The Winter Palace, of course, served both functions. Thus, while we glimpse Catherine the Great as well as Nicholas II and Alexandra with children in family quarters, we also witness an elaborate ritual in which Nicholas I receives a Persian prince.

Thanks in part to the subtle manipulation of color and light levels in these sequences, they virtually glow with an aureate radiance that mournfully whispers, “Look, look what was lost.” Sure, the people we see are cosseted and privileged, yet the film’s emphasis falls on the evanescent essentials: Beauty, grace, humanity, life. Against these, tragically, are posed the encroaching shadows of the 20th century, symbolized by a hidden room of corpses and coffins.

Public and private, symbol and sentiment converge in a double tour de force that climaxes the movie. In the first of two astonishingly realized sequences, both Custine and the camera join scores of officers and their ladies (the ones we saw at first) in dancing a spirited mazurka that, like a valentine from Tolstoy and Renoir, seems to provide a soaring elegy for an entire way of life. When the music stops, the Narrator leaves Custine, saying, “Goodbye Europe, it’s over.”

What comes next can barely be described, but it’s one of the most haunting sequences I’ve ever seen in a film: Hundreds of ballgoers amble down the palace’s vast marble staircases, like phantoms knowing they must disappear with the dawn. The camera then glances out of a side door and sees a steaming river that precisely recalls Tarkovsky’s illusory planet, Solaris. As we realize how many odysseys Sukorov has invoked–Noah’s, Homer’s, Joyce’s, Kubrick’s and Tarkovsky’s cinema’s–we are told, in a tone too gnomic to be reassuring, that the voyage is not over: “We are destined to sail forever … .”

The words linger long after the phantoms have faded into nothingness. EndBlock