Russian Ark is one of the strangest films I have ever seen. Often films test my patience with their dreary predicatability and so I always appreciate a film-maker who takes the time, not merely to rehearse the usual cliche's, but to throw in a genuine surprise or element of quirkiness. Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark however stretches the viewer in a quite different direction, in that there is almost nothing 'normal' or predictable in its entire 90 minutes!
The unusual nature of the film is apparent from the opening scene in which all the action is taken from the visual perspective of an unseen narrator. It very soon becomes clear that the narrator is a contemporary with us, yet he is entering the Hermitage (formerly the Tsar's Winter Palace) two centuries ago; furthermore, not only can we not see him - but neither can the other people in the room! That is - all except one, The Marquis de Custine - a French travel writer who indeed visited the city and wrote of his experiences in 1839. The 'slipping in and out of time' idea is most amusingly illustrated when two characters from different centuries meet - and have a row about which one of them smells of formaldehyde!
The narrator and Custine then together explore The Hermitage - Russia's former Imperial Palace and now enormous art gallery. Curiously however - as they enter each room they enter a different time-zone and encounter hundreds of characters from across three centuries. Some of these characters can see them, some can't - always they observe and absorb. Whether it is the art on the walls, The Tsar's family happily eating while a revolution brews at their gates, or Peter the Great assaulting a servant, or Catherine the Great running for the toilet, or a great Imperial banquet taking place in the 1860s - all are observed.
As if that wasn't strange enough (and dear knows it would be!) the film is also a cinematographical oddity, in that the whole film is one single unedited scene. For the whole hour and a half, the camera doesn't 'blink' once! With a cast of thousands, an astonishing backdrop, incredible costumes, and the constant changing or eras, with famous, infamous and unheard of characters drifting in and out of the frame - it is visually so unusual as to be utterly compelling.
Frankly it needs all these strange goings on to keep the viewer concentrating (and reading the occasionally confusing subtitles) as this film is almost entirely devoid of plot or character. What little plot there is consists of the Marquis de Custine being gradually persuaded of the value of Russian culture - as preserved 'ark-like' in the magnificent Hermitage museum. He begins being rather disparaging about the building as compared to say, The Vatican but by the time they reach the enormous Imperial Ball which closes the film he seems enraptured. The very final scene explains much of what has preceded - outside the Hermitage, we discover that it is surrounded by water, and is in fact a cultural ark carrying within it, centuries of Russian history, art, and culture, which lives on despite the 'floods' of wars, invasions, revolutions, civil-wars, executions, dictators and all the other convulsions of that great nation's past.
I found this film as bizarre as it was charming, and as strange as it was compelling. Whether that is because of the strange subject, or the strange presentation I don't know. Maybe it's simply because I have studied so much Russian history and spent a day exploring The Hermitage itself - that I thought that this film so perfectly captures the feel of the place and all that it represents so brilliantly. What I am sure of is this - if you like your films standardised, from the Hollywood production line - you'll hate this one!