Something like The Russian Ark almost had to be created just to prove that a feature could be made in a single shot, as the camera glides through three centuries of Russian history in the Hermitage Museum for over an hour and a half. This feat “had” to be accomplished, because nearly every filmmaker has dreamed of making a film that consists of a single shot. Until the advent of high definition video, doing so was technologically impossible, at least for features, although the trail of bravura long take sequences in many films testifies to filmmakers’ recurring desire for the option. (Hitchcock’s Rope is just the most famous example.)
In truth, speaking as a filmmaker, I felt the desire to say “Cut!” more than once watching The Russian Ark. Not because the material is weak or poor, but because some moments feel as if they would be more effectively handled with traditional methods. Of course, to have used standard editing would have violated the primary reason for the film’s existence. The fact that the feat of the single shot is done extremely well, that the attention only occasionally wanders, and that the miracle of pulling it off is compounded by the absolutely huge scale of the production, is secondary to doing it at all.
The film has other appeals, of course, although it is questionable whether they round out the audience much more. I saw The Russian Ark in its limited theatrical release with several younger film making collaborators. One told me later that he felt as if he needed me to give him footnotes of what was going on. For the film assumes the viewer will have a fairly thorough cultural grounding and knowledge of Russian and European history. And because the “tour” through the palace is not chronological, you need a lot of foreknowledge to keep your bearings. Without it, the gorgeous spectacle unrolling before you might seem remote, confusing, or a little bit of both.
At the same time, the pull of the imagery and music is just about irresistible. That appeal is never stronger than in the show-stopping, penultimate sequence. Hundreds of dancers, actors and musicians recreate a mid-19th century ball as the camera whirls and twirls amidst them with dizzying virtuosity. It may be one of the most dramatic examples in the history of film of “form as meaning,” when the execution is so extraordinary that it is moving in itself, where atmosphere and texture create an emotional appeal so strong that it almost doesn’t matter what is happening thematically. We need the slower conclusion, as the extras file out of the palace, to catch our breath, to appreciate the spectacle we have witnessed, to understand the melancholy reality that the party is over.
The Russian Ark is, in other words, most definitely a one-of-a-kind experience. If it “had” to be done to prove it could be, its breathtaking, heart-breaking, transcendent beauty also demonstrates why.