April 19, 2011


Russian Ark was a film I had wanted to see at a previous Film Festival, but missed. So I was quite pleased when I saw it on the programme for the Film Society. However, the more I thought about it before I saw it I had to wonder... yes, a one-take film is a neat gimmick, but isn't the whole point of film the editing. The use of cuts help to tell the story, whether it be to focus our attention on something or to show the passage of time. Yes, one-take films have been attempted before (most famously with the Master, Hitchcock, and his Rope) but Russian Ark is the first true one-take film; all previous "one-take" films actually hid the cuts as cameras could not be loaded with the necessary amount of film. So, an interesting idea and experiment but if you're going to do it you need to have a strong story-telling need for it. I struggled to find that with Russian Ark. It was, in fact, pretty damned boring. The story (such as it is) finds an unknown and unseen man waking up, not knowing where he is, when he is or, indeed, who he is. We never see this Man because the whole film, as well as being one-take, is in point of view. He awakens in the midst of 18th Century guests arriving for a party and although he can see them, they cannot see him. In his wanderings the Man finds another displaced gentleman, referred to as the European. He is/was a French diplomat and has no idea how he found himself here either. He is cantankerous and disdainful of Russian history and art and is seemingly just as invisible as the Man. They wander around the Hermitage Museum (where the film is set and filmed) entering new periods in history with each room they enter. Essentially the film is a tour through a couple hundred years of Russian history and art, though only being glimpses. Your enjoyment of the film will really depend on how much you know about Russian history already and if you’re quite happy to sit in a cinema looking at a painting. Quite frankly, I found it to be a stilted, unnaturally paced slog. Confined as it is to one location the history that can be shown is limited and is presented almost entirely without context; the movements between rooms seem to follow no reason for their order. There is barely anything to grasp on to, as you are sent from room to room; period to period. It doesn’t work as narrative as, well, there isn’t much of one. And it doesn’t work as history lesson as a decent working knowledge of Russian history seems to be required to understand all the snapshots provided. The selection of the historical periods covered can be somewhat baffling; again, this is more than likely due to the restriction of having one location and one shot to capture it all. I can see reasons to like this: it’s a bold experiment in cinematic storytelling, the costumes are gorgeous and the final sequence, with a grand ballroom scene followed by a massive amount of people exiting down the main staircase is breath-taking and impressive, especially in this day of CG populated crowds. But, for me, it didn’t connect. The POV one-shot served to distance me, more than involve me. And, if you’ve been paying attention (which I’m sure you have), you’ll see that I have used no paragraph breaks in this post. See what I did there? Makes it a bit harder to read, doesn’t it?

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