December 23, 2001 is the last chance for Russian director Alexander Sokurov. Holed up inside St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, an exhausted camera crew, two thousands actors in period costume, and three orchestras are waiting for the signal to start. This is the one fact that everyone who has heard of “Russian Ark” knows even before watching it: this movie was filmed entirely in one take. Using a Steadicam to stabilize the shot, the whole 96-minute movie was filmed and saved, uncompressed, onto a hard disk. No cuts, no transitions; this is the most realistic movie I’ve seen.
Our Russian narrator (Sokurov) — a modern time-traveler — follows the Marquis de Custine (Sergey Dreyden) — affectionately known as “The European” — through each salon, trying half-heartedly to both defend Russian culture and figure out why they have suddenly been transported in time. The European wanders aimlessly through the Winter Palace — smelling the paintings and harassing the guests — all the while mocking Russian culture.
Fast forward to March 2014. NATO kicked Russia out of the G8 summit, Putin is annexing Crimea, and “Russian Ark” is playing at the Northwest Film Center. The time traveler, a present-day Russian, butts heads with the Frenchman, who wrote a scathing travelogue of Russia in 1839. In the museum, they are both forced to endure Russian elites from multiple centuries.
As they walk through the rooms the time period keep changing. We meet Catherine the Great (Mariya Kuznetsova) teaching a group of children how to curtsy and Nicholas II (Vladimir Baranov) accepting an apology from Persia for the assassination of a Russian missionary. We even see a brief glimpse of modern-day patrons, their t-shirts and loafers contrasting with 19th century regalia just a few rooms over.
“Russian Ark” is less of a movie and more of a dream. While the first-person perspective and single-shot continuity mirror how we perceive life, the actors fall in and out of focus, disappearing and reappearing whenever it’s convenient. The fourth wall is demolished and immediately rebuilt. More than the larger action in each scene, the film derives its effect from the interaction between The European and the Russians ( from all centuries). Each room is a new challenge for our intrepid narrator and sardonic interlocutor. Whether flirting with female art admirers or criticizing the Russian Orthodox Church, The European has no intention of quietly passing by. In one scene, he sees an El Greco on the wall: “Very nice,” he says, “looks like a Rembrandt.”
The tension between western European and Russian culture permeates every interaction in the film. That’s not to say that both time travelers don’t warm up to the idea of spending an eternity in the museum. By the end, even The European seems to enjoy himself. After briefly parting ways The Marquis spots the narrator once more: “My Russian cicerone! Do you know the way?” he asks. “Yes, let’s go together.” “This is your country!”, yells the foreigner. “Yes, but not my century.”