Russian Ark


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Russian Ark
"What has been described as 'startlingly original' seems closer to a Russian variation of the Chinese water torture."

You have been here before in dreams, but can't remember because the images are fleeting, like figures leaving a room, or cavalry officers gazing across a dance floor, where bodies swirl and circle. Dreams like these leave you exhausted.

The protagonist is a voice. "I cannot see," it says. "Where am I?" The voice becomes the camera, following people through a century-and-a-half of life at the Winter Palace, later known as The Hermitage, in St Petersburg. Is the camera person a ghost, haunting the past, like a voyeuristic spirit that cannot stop yakking?

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What has been described as "startlingly original" seems closer to a Russian variation of the Chinese water torture. The camera enters rooms of spectacular opulence, where men and women converse. You are introduced to a scene, such as "Nicholas the First receives a delegation from Persia", where diplomatic speeches are delivered, or a family luncheon with the last Tsar, where his fated children squirm and giggle.

There is no scheme, nor structure. A man in high heeled boots, described in the blurb as the Marquis de Custine, who wrote a scathing account of Russian society in the 19th century, suddenly turns up and appears to have a rapport with the invisible narrator. He accompanies the film, like a gatecrasher at a funeral.

After a while, you suspect that this is a product of the tourist board, financed by Remnants Of White Russia, a blue blooded splinter group of, a popular website, specialising in royalist rumour. Its attempt to recreate the facade of palatial grandeur is weakened by an anaemic storyline. Simply to be in the room when Catherine the Great decides to take a walk in bad weather is not the same as caring two hoots what she does.

The final sequence, which goes on until the cows come home and go out again, is a grand ball. Have you ever been to a country house dance, where the mothers of debutantes and men who talk of "the regiment", imitate the motions of a Highland reel? It's like that, but stiffer.

Jumbled images tumble in the mind for as long as it takes to sigh with relief. White tie and tails, uniforms, ball gowns, polished parquet, heavy paintings, beards, a hint of theatre, light conversation, big rooms, servants, small people, decor and dresses make up a kaleidoscope of decayed nostalgia.

Reviewed on: 03 Apr 2003
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19th Century French aristocrat time-travels through Russian history in one long uninterrupted steadicam shot.
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Jennie Kermode **

Director: Alexander Sokurov

Writer: Boris Khaimsky, Anatoli Nikiforov, Svetlana Proskurina, Aleksandr Sokurov

Starring: Sergei Dontsov, Mariya Kuznetsova, Leonid Mozgovoy, David Giorgobiani, Aleksandr Chaban, Maksim Sergeyev

Year: 2002

Runtime: 96 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: Russia/Germany


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