Russian Ark (March 24/03)
It's impossible to read a review of Russian Ark and not see the amazing technical feat of the film mentioned. Russian Ark transpires in a single take, shot entirely at the Hermitage museum in Russia using a digital camera. But the real question is, if it wasn't for that admittedly amazing achievement, would anyone care about Russian Ark? Unless the viewer happens to be a student of Russian history, it's quite unlikely.
Russian Ark's single take is actually one long point-of-view shot, as the unseen narrator (voiced by director Aleksander Sokurov) suddenly finds himself at the museum - with no explanation for how he got there or why he's surrounded by folks dressed in 18th century garb. He's soon joined by another time traveler known as the Marquis (Segei Dreiden), a Frenchman who suddenly finds himself speaking Russian. The two wander the halls of the Hermitage, pointing out paintings but never explaining their significance, and bumping into a variety of historical figures (such as Catherine the Great).
There's no denying that Russian Ark is, generally, a stunning film on a purely visceral level. Sokurov's camera glides through the Hermitage, sometimes even venturing into the outdoors (a quick tracking shot behind Catherine the Great, set in the snow, is one of the most interesting moments in the film). But as anyone who's ever seen a Michael Bay film knows, a film has to have more than just glossy visuals and flashy camerawork. In Russian Ark, there's no context for anything; the dialogue is entirely descriptive (I've never before felt such a longing for expository dialogue) and we're not given a single character to become attached to. The Marquis certainly isn't a compelling figure, and the narrator (though he initially sounds as clueless as we are) seems to only exist in order for Sokurov to justify a 90-minute take.
But all of that would be forgivable if the film had bothered to advantage of the fact that it takes place entirely in a museum. Though many historical artifacts are pointed out, none of them are explained or given more than a cursory once over. And worse than that, Sokurov even includes quite a few real-life figures (the aforementioned Catherine the Great, Peter the Great), but never spells out their significance. Perhaps he made Russian Ark solely for his fellow countrymen and women, I don't know; whatever the case, he's created a film that's likely to baffle the majority of audiences.
Still, the fluid nature of the film and lack of dialogue makes it easy enough to day-dream during some of the more obtuse sequences. But Sokurov had a great opportunity here, and completely blew it. How many other movies are going to be able to film in the legendary Hermitage museum? As a piece of film history, Russian Ark is certainly important. But as a piece of entertainment, Russian Ark fails completely.