What’s ultimately most exhilarating about movies may be the fact that they movenot move us in an emotional sense (though that helps), but move us by simply picking up the camera and propelling it down streets, around corners, up staircases, even into clouds. No other art form can achieve liberation quite like film, which has the power to visualize and extend a flight of fancy as far as the poor camera operator’s legs can carry it. Think of Franka Potente’s thrilling sprints in Run Lola Run, the storefronts becoming a blur as we race beside her step for step, and you’re appreciating one of the purest sensations cinema has to offer.
The sturdy cinematographer of that film, Tilman Büttner, now trades speed for duration with equally impressive results in Russian Ark, a full-length feature captured in a single, mind-bogglingly complex shot lasting 96 minutes. If that feat, combined with the split-second coordination of hundreds of extras in costume, three live orchestras and the opulence of St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum, is enough to get you down to the Belcourt this Friday, then so be it. There are worse reasons to see a movie, and few made at this level of sheer technical splendor.
Such is the reputation preceding Alexander Sokurov’s film, his latest in a career of well-funded experimentation. But don’t be surprised if you’re moved in that emotional sense as well: Russian Ark has a quiet, mysterious pull to it, one that deepens with every feint and swivel of the camera. From out of blackness, we hear an off-screen voicethat of Sokurov himself, playing the confused victim of an unspecified “accident”drifting through another century’s rooms unnoticed. The dislocation may remind you of that bizarre antechamber at the end of 2001’s cosmic tunnel, and what follows could put you in mind of Kubrick’s sumptuous Barry Lyndon. But the film’s restless heart, its ominous glide down corridors echoing with the chatter of long-dead party guests, is pure Shining.
Russian Ark is a ghost story, and like all ghost stories, its real subject is time out of joint. Museums, by their function, have an air of the past about them; the Hermitage was also a home to the ruling czars and their blissfully unconcerned children. As such, it’s doubly haunted. You don’t have to be a student of Russian history to appreciate Sokurov’s detailed re-creations spanning the period, various flauntings of wealth and power: Peter the Great humiliating and shoving one of his minions or, later, a backstage view of dozens of sweating actors and prop-men putting on a command performance for Catherine II.
Sokurov rarely makes mention of the coming Bolshevik revolution that would end all this, ushering in its own era of brutalism. It’s a provocative choice, inviting some to charge the director of an uncritical royalist nostalgia. But the sympathies are deceptive and a vein to deeper ironies: Sokurov’s czarist time capsule floats along in an untroubled haze, his gliding camera creating the impression of nothing more than a blinkered dream sustained by blindness.
Throughout it all is the art: gorgeous Canova sculptures and Van Dijk oils in frozen counterpoint to Sokurov’s fluidity. This is what will survive time, not the monarchy; as if to reflect this alternate universe, Büttner’s camera exposes the glossy, almost flesh-like textures of the paintings, while people remain pallid, distant figures. One of these figures has been our unwitting guidea foppish 19th century French marquis (Sergey Dreiden) fully clad in black. Wandering the maze too, he alone has been able to communicate with the off-screen voice, but after encountering a magnificent royal ball (the last before the war), he seems to hesitate. His place is with these ghosts, dancing with them to the end and descending en masse down the grand staircase in the film’s stunning tour-de-force conclusion.
By carving out a whole piece of time unedited, Sokurov has ended up with a dense, elegiac testament to human impermanence: “We are destined to sail forever,” says the voice. Only in art can such transcendence stand as the final word, much less the truth.
That comment was so May 22.
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