Director: Alexander Sokurov
Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark is something of an anomaly when it comes to great movies in that it's a great technical achievement without being a particularly impressive narrative achievement. Due to the circumstances in which it came to be, it's a much more interesting movie for how it was made than it is for the actual story unfolding on screen, which means that a "making of" documentary (which does exist, though I haven't seen it) has a chance of being more riveting than the film itself because it tells a more interesting tale. Yet, Russian Ark really is an impressive feat, accomplishing something that seems like it would be impossible, so even if it is fascinating more for its mechanics than for its actual product, it's still a remarkable piece of filmmaking.
The plot of Russian Ark is so simple that it's almost non-existent. An unseen man (from whose point-of-view everything is seen) seems to come to with no idea of where he is or why. He sees a party of men and women, army officers and their ladies dressed in the garb of a different era, none of whom seem to be able to see him, and he follows them into the Winter Palace where he meets another man who also appears to be unseen to the people at large. This man is "the European" (Sergei Dreiden), who becomes the narrator's semi-constant companion and engages in back and forth with him about art and culture as they move from room to room throughout the Palace. Neither they, nor the building, are fixed in time but move fluidly through it and every time the two enter a room, they find a scene unfolding from a different period of Russian history. They encounter, briefly, each of Catherine the Great and Peter the Great, they witness a portion of a grand ceremony in which Nicholas I gives an audience to the representative of the Shah of Iran, who offers a formal apology for the murders of a Russian ambassador and embassy staff, they witness a happy familial scene featuring the children of Nicholas II and Alexandra, and overhear discussions regarding the repairs needed during the rule of Joseph Stalin.
Most of the time, the narrator and the European appear to be unseen by those around them, but sometimes other people can see them and interact with them. The European, at one point, meets a blind woman who is making her way through the museum and who impresses him by guiding him through one of the rooms, and at another he ends up in hostile discussion that puts a deep scare into the young man on the other end of it. When they wander into one room, they encounter a desperate man who is busy building his own coffin during the Siege of Leningrad, and end up fleeing from him. They are also, at certain points, shooed out of rooms by officials or otherwise warned that they're venturing into a prohibited area. Finally, in what is the film's greatest achievement, they end up attending a grand ball, where the European dances and decides that it is time for him and the narrator to part ways because, while the narrator wants to keep going, the European has found the place where he wants to stay. The narrator does keep going, descending down a grand staircase with a sea of other people, moving through the people, their costuming suggesting one time period giving way to another giving way to another as the narrator goes further down the stairs, and finally coming to a door that opens to reveal the sea, making the Palace an ark that is preserving Russian culture as it floats through time.
There's not much to the story of Russian Ark; it's just a bunch of vignettes depicting as many periods of Russian history as possible, and if the film was created and unfolded in a conventional way, you wouldn't make much of any of this, though certain scenes would likely still pop and fascinate. What makes the overall project intriguing, however, is that it was filmed entirely in one shot, that that one shot was achieved on the fourth attempt, and that had that shot not succeeded, the project would never have been able to see the light of day because the production had only one day to film at the Palace and by that fourth attempt they were almost out of daylight and had only enough battery power for one more take. The one unbroken shot movie (or appearance of one unbroken shot) has started to become something of its own curious subgenre what with 2014's Best Picture Birdman and last year's Victoria, but Russian Ark is clearly it's own very unique achievement. It doesn't just unfold in one long shot, it also requires the coordination of a ton of different pieces in order to be successful, including moving through 33 different rooms of the Palace (plus a courtyard), and shepherding a massive secondary cast of 2,000 people, some of whom show up in one place early in the film and have to reappear later on in another place. On a technical level, Russian Ark is a massive undertaking and the fact that Sokurov is able to pull it off is utterly amazing.
On a narrative level, Russian Ark isn't quite as impressive and some scenes fall a little flat (though it's possible that the more you know about Russian history, the less true that may be), but many of the individual scenes are impressive and enthralling. The scene involving the children of Nicholas and Alexandra, for example, has an effective undercurrent of melancholy as we watch the children happily frolicking while we know their terrible fate, the scene in which the narrator and the European encounter the man living through the Siege is pretty chilling, and the lingering sequence which takes place during the ceremonial apology by the Shah of Iran is engrossing. But the real jewel of the film is the ball sequence, during which the camera moves among the dancers and partygoers and then seems to float up into the orchestra before exiting and heading towards the staircase, which is where the sheer size of this project really starts to hit home. The beginning of Russian Ark is a bit slow, but it's a film worth sticking with because the ending is so exhilarating that it just knocks your socks off. It may be a film that's impressive more for its form than its content, but it's still a marvel.