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Russian Ark

By Ian Grey | Posted

Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark is a film in which perfection is the only option. It's one continuous 96-minute take, featuring more than 2,000 actors, dancers, and musicians, shot by a single high-definition video camera--one cough from an extra an hour in and the whole attempt is ruined. The single shot starts with soldiers and coquettes fumbling in a darkened stairway in the Hermitage, the St. Petersburg palace turned gallery, and ends with the Royal Ball of 1913, a stunning assemblage of scores in period costume with full orchestra accompaniment. In between, an unnamed narrator voiced by Sokurov and an eccentric diplomat (Sergei Dreiden) banter as they wander the marble, stone, and gilded museum rooms where more than 200 years of Russian history unfold. In one room, myriad plumed, bejeweled performers dance before a fountain of shooting sparks. In another, Catherine the Great announces, "I've got to take a piss!" Elsewhere, Communist officials forlornly eye 17th-century oil paintings. Sokurov's one-take conceit is hypnotic in effect, resulting in a near indescribable cumulative pileup of emotions and ideas. A near miracle of executed logistics and unimaginable rehearsal, analogous to the procedures and effects of symphonic music, Ark is a majestic work about the limits and transcendence of human subjectivity and the way we struggle to connect only partially recalled events, how we never quite get it right, but how via works like Russian Ark, we create something even better.

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