Every review of Russian Ark starts with the same point: it is a 90-minute film (without credits) that comprises of a single unbroken shot.
The story is of an unnamed narrator (the camera), who wanders around Winter Palace in St Petersburg with a character called The European (meant to be Marquis de Custine), who is contemptuous of Russians and Russian culture. They wander around and in each room meet fictional and historical people from different periods of the city’s 300-year history.
Russian Ark, to me, is less of a film than a formal experiment and a challenge. It is impressive, especially in the 1st 5 or 10 minutes—at some point, the camera seems to fly above the orchestra and land on the seating area and then follow the character to another room. Filmmakers and anyone interested in the technical aspect should watch it.
I’m glad I’ve seen it, but personally I don’t like it. As an audience, I agree with Stanley Kauffmann “What is there intrinsically in the film that would grip us if it had been made--even excellently made--in the usual edited manner? […] We sample a lot of scenes that in themselves have no cumulation, no self-contained point... Everything we see or hear engages us only as part of a directorial tour de force.” (source) As someone who loves 19th century Russian literature and has some interest in Russian history, I’m indifferent to the film—Russian Ark is not devoid of ideas, it may even have interesting points about Russian culture, but it didn’t have my interest beyond the making of the film itself.
As a filmmaker, I would say that Russian Ark is against everything I believe in, about cinema. 1st of all, I love editing—it was editing, or the power to cut and put together different shots to tell a story, that gave birth to cinema. Editing is the main strength of cinema, compared to theatre—the use of different shot sizes (ability to show things in detail—close-up, or in context—wide shot), juxtaposition of images/ ideas, manipulation of time, structure and the ability to restructure a story. A film is made 3 times—in the script, during the shoot, and on the editing table.
The filmmakers of Russian Ark therefore deny the most interesting tool of cinema.
To make a feature film in a single unbroken shot is a fascinating task, but it is a challenge and an achievement for the crew rather than something for the audience. It is no more than a gimmick—an impressive one indeed, but still a gimmick. As I was watching the film, there was no interest in the story and ideas—all of my attention was for the technical aspect, especially when some image looked weird, probably because they reframed something in post-production or stabilised it and created a warped image.
In addition, I like a good frame. On this blog, for example, I have singled out the most interesting shots in Citizen Kane and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. In Russian Ark, because the entire film is in a single shot and the camera is constantly moving, to follow The European and/or go around a room, there is hardly a single frame that looks good. Russian Ark is not cinematic.
I’m surprised when some people name Russian Ark among the most beautiful films they have seen. The film has a magnificent location, and gorgeous costumes. It’s more interesting when the film looks beautiful even though there’s nothing remarkable about the location. The Double Life of Veronique, for instance, has mediocre locations, but it’s one of the most visually beautiful films I have ever seen, thanks to the lighting and framing (and the charming actress). Stalker, which was filmed in desolate, ramshackle buildings and deserted factories, is breath-takingly beautiful
Overall, Russian Ark is an impressive challenge, something I would not attempt myself. It’s worth watching for that alone. But honestly, it’s not cinematic.