Russian Ark reminded me of this one time I went to The Louvre and saw Tom Delonge with a camcorder, shooting video of every painting he passed. At the time I was all like, “That’s stupid. What, he’s going to go back and watch all of that footage later?” Well, maybe he really likes Rembrandt but is too cheap to buy the book of his paintings from the gift shop. Maybe he has trouble sleeping – and doesn’t own a copy of any Tarkovsky films – and so he makes his own sleep-enduser movies. Or, maybe he was inspired by this little film:
In a nut shell, Russian Ark is about the history of Russia and how that fits into the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. In a thinly constructed attempt at plot, there is a man who has perhaps recently died, who encounters “The European” (based on some guy named Marquis de Custine, a man I hadn’t heard of until I read the Wikipedia entry on the movie. every time they referred to the guy as the “Marquis” I thought they were talking about the Marquis de Sade. It goes without saying that I was sort of expecting a crazier ending…) and they proceed to move through the rooms, each representing a different period of Russian history.
Not being a Russian history afficianado (I know nothing about it), Russian Ark was hard for me to follow. I perked up when I heard names like Mikhail or Anastasia, but most everything I learned about Russian I learned from cartoons, and turns out that cold death-trap of a country isn’t so popular with Disney. That’s not to say that you must know Russian history well in order to enjoy the movie, as has been suggested in many reviews. I think a general knowledge of art provides enough of a base.
However, I know a little about the art in the Heritage Museum (I was especially excited to see some sculptures by Canova) and I didn’t really enjoy the film. Everyone talks about how the movie is boring, but I submit that it is not boring enough. The character named “The European” is constantly talking, making noises like a distressed Anime character. He grunts and groans and says “mhmm” throughout the entire film, making Russian Ark far too noisy.
I think the choice of shooting in one take is amazing (a bit of a gimick, but still amazing). I think the design of the piece is incredible, and the coordination of it all is astounding. That said, it would have been much more interesting if they had been just a bit braver, abandoning the chatty narrators who feel the need to explain everything incessantly, and moving through the rooms without guidance. It seems to me they are going for a Wings of Desire kind of effect, but only as a way to try to keep people entertained. Their chief concern is obviously the camera and they would have done better to step back and let the camera do all the talking.
Overall, not a horrible hour and a half. It certainly didn’t deserve to be on my top five films I never wanted to see, but I’m also not that excited that I finally saw it. I think Russian Ark might be a film I forget by next week (unless I use it as a way to explain cinematography in intro classes, which is where I first encountered the film). Whether that is my fault for being uninformed, or the filmmaker’s fault for being caught by typical narrative techniques is up for grabs.