Review: Russian Ark (2002)

Russian Ark [Russkiy kovcheg] (2002) is a Russian film, as if the title wasn’t obvious enough, that has attempted a risk taking maneuver. The film was shot in a single ninety minute take utilizing a Steadicam and a high-definition video camera. This technical feat isn’t the only time a film crew has shot an entire movie in a single take. However, this film is unique because the crew was handling thousands of actors and a lot of coordination of time constraints, potential failures with the equipment, and a high amount of constraint with the location they were filming.

The lens of the camera serves a gateway between you and the characters on the screen. Placing yourself into the role as the casual observer, which is the viewpoint that is physically demonstrated through the motions of the camera operator, your interactions are rather limited. You can see and hear what’s going on, but your only real direct interaction is with the film’s narrator of sorts — The Frenchman (he is also credited with the name “The Stranger”). No one else in the film ever takes note of your existence except for The Frenchman, who is seen in the photograph above, and provokes an interacting conversation with the film’s viewer. If you could imagine a Frenchman acting as a curious docent for a Russian museum than you have already taken a step in the right direction for a clear understanding of the film’s design.

At the start of the film you are witness of a group of elite members of the upper class, at least you could suspect, who are exiting their carriage to enter the Russian State Hermitage Museum to join a fanciful party that is already in progress. Much to the dismay of these party goers they loose their sense of direction in the huge building as they attempt to find the grand ballroom. As you are casually following the group of people through the underbelly of the museum you stumble across the path of an unfamiliar face. He’s a nineteenth century French aristocrat who is skeptical of the Russian’s lavish lifestyle. After the proper introductions between the Frenchman and yourself have been completed the two of you are tossed into a world of cinematic illusions with two-thousand cast members, three orchestras, thirty-three rooms (all in the same building), and about three-hundred years of Russian history.

The ninety-minute long single take offers a unique addition to a rather dull story. I was thinking that this film offers a flyby overview of Russian history more than it actually tells a dramatic story that is entertaining for the viewer to be drawn into watching. Some of the scenes in the film droned on and on incessantly with no dramatic conflict that would hold my interest. It was the technical use of the single camera and a single take that picked up the slack during the story’s dull moments. The technical feat is a display of novelty that I fear will fade in time when a new film technique is presented to the pleasure of the viewing public.

The broad coverage of Russian history is the clear definition that could be associated with the film’s title. Think back to the Biblical story of Noah and his over sized boat filled with every possible animal that he could capture. If by chance you were a guest visitor on Noah’s ark and you were allowed to bring along your home video camera I’m sure you could release a zoological film called Biblical Ark. This awkward concept that I am trying to explain can be applied to this film. You are the special guest who wanders the halls of Russian State Hermitage Museum viewing little bits of Russian history as they are neatly placed in their rhetoric stalls within the ark of a museum. The Stranger is the modern day Noah who would guide you along on your trip through the ark.

If the film’s narrative wasn’t a broad brush stroke of a story, then I would be more enthralled by the story then by the paintbrush that was used to paint the story. Another film that has attempted to pull of the trick of using a single take was Mike Figgis’s film Time Code (2000). I was more entertained by the story line for Time Code than I was for Russian Ark, but that shouldn’t deter anyone from giving either film a good viewing. My final rating for the film is rather generous, but with an explanation. I have chose to rate this film with an eight out of ten possible review points. It was the intriguing method of camera work that held my own attention through the film. I am curious to know what the opinion of the other viewers who are not so easily intrigued by the fancy technique of the film crew.

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