Russian Ark

Russian Ark

This poster - nothing nowhere this fun happens in this movie

(Russkiy kovcheg)


dir: Aleksandr Sokurov

Usually when people are ambivalent about something they say "I'm in two minds about this". In the case of this film I am in fifteen minds about it.

Reading reviews of this film from the serious chin-stroking film reviewers over the last few months, I was lead to believe that this film is one of the single greatest contributions to cinema in the last 100 years. It only recently received cinematic release here in Australia, and I was eager to see it on the big screen instead of waiting another month or so to see it on DVD.

Much has been made of both the achievement in cinema this film represents and the artistic conceptual realisation that the film maker strives for. Essentially the achievement is an entire film made without edits. It is one continuous shot, unedited and incredibly well choreographed behind the scenes, with hundreds of extras having to be doing the right thing at the right time. Apparently it took them three attempts to get it right, which must have been quite frustrating for all concerned.

The other big selling point is the fact that the entirety of the film occurs within the walls of the Hermitage Museum, in St Petersburg, a place notoriously hard to get access to, especially for something of this nature.

Our so-called protagonist is really the camera, who wakes up confused to find himself back in the 18th century, following people about in the Hermitage. He bumps into famous people, Tsar Nicholas the First, Catherine the Great, but mostly seems to wander around aimlessly. He also finds a fellow time traveller, a strange person referred to as the Stranger (credited as Sergei Dreiden, but actually an actor called Sergei Dontsov; don't ask me what the fuck it means I've got no fucking idea). This Stranger has all the charm and tact of a crazy incontinent homeless man on public transport. He engages the camera - protagonist in conversation as they wander the halls of the Hermitage, occasionally stopping to see some of the masterpieces, offering fleeting glimpses at classic works. They have an antagonistic relationship and argue about various things as they go, and the Stranger, true to form hassles other people he finds in the museum as well. Some of them are from the 1800s, other are contemporary 21st century people. It's less confusing than it sounds.

They continue to wander, sometimes separately, sometimes rejoining, being shooed away ominously by some people, welcomed by others in various parlours and into extravagant situations.

In the end, after a grand dance in a ballroom with hundreds of immaculately costumed extras, the camera's final shot focuses on an area outside the museum which looks like water, encapsulating the entire Russian Ark idea: that despite the turmoil, upheaval and shocking violence over the last three hundred years of Russian and European history, the survival of a place like the Hermitage meant that literally priceless pieces of history and civilisation have survived. The Hermitage and the film have to do more with a view of Russia as part of a sophisticated Europe than any idea of Russian pre-eminence or nationalism. Clearly many of the greatest works housed within the museum aren't even Russian in origin or design; they're works by the European masters. So anyone fearful of being subjected to Soviet - Communist propaganda for 90 minutes need not fret.

The orchestration of the whole escapade is amazing. The feat is truly a tremendous achievement in terms of film making. And it does make points regarding history, tyrants, art, beauty and the survival of the extensions of civilisation that great works of art essentially represent. The unprecedented access to the Hermitage is also staggering, as for most of us that will never be able to afford to make the pilgrimage there, it is amazing to look inside one of the greatest museums in human history.

All this being true, then why the fuck was I so bored?

I truly found this 'film' utterly stultifying. Though I'm sure I may have missed plenty of the symbolism and the sheer importance of everything that was going on, I really didn't care. Plenty of times when the Stranger is confronting people (as he does when he starts haranguing a young guy who has the temerity to offer an opinion regarding a painting depicting St Peter and St Paul), it is like watching an insane homeless person yelling at people for being part of the alien conspiracy or for making their wives leave them thirty years ago; it's uncomfortable and unproductive.

Though technically it's an incredible achievement, in my anything but humble opinion it is not even a remotely decent film. It's not engaging, the glimpses of the masterpieces are entirely frustrating more than anything else, and the curious blend of documentary and narrative fictitious commentary wildly varies in terms of quality. I really did not appreciate this film. I can pay respect to the achievement, but that doesn't mean I found it even remotely enjoyable. I'm sure it meant a lot to other much smarter people than myself, but the feeling I was most often experiencing more than halfway through the proceedings was a most profound boredom.

Towards the end I was verging on that state where one snaps their head forward to stop themselves from passing out entirely, and I was watching the film in the middle of the day.

I have a very high boredom threshold, much higher than most people. I love plenty of films that put other people into comas. I adore the films of Hal Hartley and Whit Stillman. I love many Japanese films, including many of the non-Kurosawa older Japanese films that moved with the speed of sleepy glaciers. Hell, I even watched the original Tarkovsky version of Solaris in one sitting and somewhat enjoyed it. But I found this film boring. I can't think of any greater condemnation than that.

This film is like watching a very unattractive person having a wank at the Taj Mahal or at the Louvre. Even though the locale and the scenery are great, and they're technically marvellous at it and have the endurance to do it for 90 minutes, they're still just having a wank. And I sure as hell don't like paying good money to watch people masturbate. Not when I can read comments sections and see people doing it for free :)

5 revolutions out of 10 that I should lead to prevent films like this being made.

"I open my eyes and I see nothing" - Russian Ark