I have had dreams like this. In these dreams, I am in a place much like the Hermitage — a museum, or maybe a school, with rooms and corridors and galleries salons and atria all spilling over into each other. I am searching for something here, something which is slipping away from me ever faster the more I hunt for it, and soon it is gone. When I wake up, all I remember are the most general parts of the dream, but I always remember that questing feeling more than any other element.
For Russian Ark to tap into something so personal is only one of the many reasons I was astounded by it. Just on the most basic technical level, the film is brilliant: it is a film composed in a single unbroken, uninterrupted 100-minute take. No film camera has a magazine big enough for such a feat, so the whole film was shot using a special high-definition digital system. The picture quality is practically indistinguishable from film, anyway, and if it means film is dead, it also means we have entered a new era of moviemaking that allows things never before possible.
Russian Ark is a reverie of sorts, a meditation on 300 years of Russian history, shot entirely inside and around the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg. The camera / narrator begins in darkness, then glides inside the building amidst crowds of soldiers and society women to finally acquire a companion and guide of sorts: an unnamed 19th-century French diplomat (Sergey Dreiden) famed for his memoirs about Russia, also adrift in the Hermitage, reminiscing about everything he sees. The unseen narrator acts as a sounding board for the diplomat, and the two of them disagree on more than one of the points they present to each other, right down to where to go (one of the most oft-repeated lines of dialogue is "Don't go in there!").
For those who have never been to the Hermitage (or can never go there), the movie functions like a tour of the museum, which (again) would in itself be reason enough to see it. Museums are places where we go to see time stopped in many different ways — in the art galleries, which our two witnesses wander through, marveling at how Russian art took so much from European traditions, right down to its defects. We see dinnertimes, afternoon salons, dances and balls, stage performances, processionals, arguments over religion and politics and art. Again, what matters is not the material itself, but the feeling; the movie could just as easily have been about American history and would be no less dreamy in its effect.
At various points in the movie individual figures swim out of the sea of faces. We almost never learn their names, and when we do, they're scarcely familiar — but again, the movie makes it clear that it is not a history lesson. I was actually expecting one of those dire films they used to show us in history class, a cheap-looking reenactment of some historical event, but the movie isn't even about reenacting any one moment in time (although its parade of costumes and powdered faces never fail to be convincing).
The movie will probably frustrate people who do not know of Russian history, and are not even familiar with its most looming figures — Peter and Catherine the Great, for instance. It does help to know many of the figures, major and minor, that glide by (quick, who's Pushkin?), but ultimately it is not essential. What matters most, I think, is not what the movie addresses but how it does it — in an ethereal, sad, slightly detached way that is the closest thing I've seen to someone putting a dream on film.
Even outside of the technology that makes the film possible, there is also the sheer effort of will that made it happen, the hubris and determination to bring something this ambitious and difficult to fruition. Over two thousand actors appear in the production, almost all of them in period costume, and it's humbling to think that if so much as one of them stepped wrong or stumbled (to say nothing of the cinematographer), the entire thing would come crashing down like a house of cards. In fact, it did — twice. Since the whole of the museum had to be shut down to execute the production, they could only do a maximum of three takes before they would have had to cheat by using invisible edits or other gimmickry, but on the third take everything went perfectly. The crew and director rehearsed every step, every turn of the camera with the tirelessness of a ballet performance, and it shows. I have not seen a film this lovingly made in decades.
The grand finale of the film is a ball with hundreds of people in attendance, both grandiose and sad, after which everyone files outside. But the camera lingers, distracted, and peers out a side door to see not the landscape outside but the ocean, seething slowly (in the film's sole digital effect). The meaning of the title is clear: the Hermitage is a repository for all of Russia, to bring it to higher ground and better times. But something else the movie makes clear is that it's not just the museum that's so important, but the people who travel with it and through it — and maybe that's the real meaning of our odyssey through it, that to be Russian is a matter of experience and not just language or geography.
Most movies are entertainments, and there's nothing wrong with that, but Russian Ark operates on a totally different level. Instead of telling a story, it gives us an experience — although that experience functions like a story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but driven by feelings rather than plot, a feeling for closure like the one that moved me through my own dreams. By the end I was moved in ways that most films with a coherent story never come close to. Russian Ark is easily the greatest movie of the year, and an embodiment of everything I hope to find in the best of movies: something really new and daring. And it had the one thing that I seek in every dream: I never wanted to wake up.