Wednesday, 25 February 2009

I love the 18th Century. A time of genius and manners

No 358 - Russkiy Kovcheg (Russian Ark)
Director - Alexandr Sokurov


This film somewhat hurt my brain. It is different from anything I have ever seen and there are parts that I thought were revolutionary and astounding, there are also parts that I really didn't like.

For those of you that don't know anything about this film (and I'm not judging you, I'd never heard of the film until Empire stuck it in their list) let me try and explain. The film is a sort of tour. You, the viewer, are an unnamed unseen figure, apparently from modern times who finds himself in 18th Century Russia following the last days of the Russian aristocracy before the communists take over. You are joined by the Marquis. A 19th century Frenchman with somewhat scathing views of Russia and the Russians.
Together, the film moves through St Petersburg's Russian State Hermitage Museum, examining the architecture, the art and allowing 200 years of Russian history to flit from room to room.

What is truly impressive is that the entire 98 minute film is one continuous Steadicam shot. There isn't a single edit in the entire film. Just thinking of the control, organisation and choreography that must have taken place is astounding.

The other thing I have found interesting is the refusal for plot. We get to see snapshots of history but these snap shots don't have structure. We flit from the 1700s to the modern day, via the 19th century and these changes happen seamlessly as you move from room to room. In these snapshots we get to see some of the great figures of Russian history, Catherine the Great (both as a young and as an older lady), Tsar Nikolas II and Anastasia, dancing down the corridor with her friends, not knowing that soon the Communists will come and destroy their world.

Whilst the film isn't 'anti-communist' it does celebrate the opulence and the beauty of the Russian aristocracy and whilst it never happens on screen, you do mourn the knowledge that there will be a revolution which takes this opulence away.
And what opulence. What splendour. I will return to talking about my views on the film but here is the perfect opportunity for my shallowness to seep in. Allow me to talk about clothes for a second.

It is a travesty that the Russian aristocracy were all killed off. I believe that they should have been allowed to stay simply based on the strength of the men's jackets. They seem to be plain jackets of either red or blue (or red and blue) but then covered in bling and spangles and extra bits of gold chord. It all seems so superfluous. I love it.
If you combine it with the magnificent moustache/sideburns combos that they all seem to be sporting, it clearly seems that this would have been the perfect era for me to live in.... sigh....

So, apologies for that brief interlude and back to the film.
With the fading of eras, with the strange floaty feel of the Steadicam and with the lack of information, the need of acceptance, the film all points to one sensation. Dream. The whole film is structured (a term I use lightly) and presented as if it was a dream. It works incredibly well. The Marquis is a guide in your dream, the viewer (and indeed the character that the viewer represents) feels less comfortable when the Marquis isn't in shot, characters flit and occasions occur and you are rooted in the middle of it all.
However, it is here that my one criticism of the film comes in. The dialogue.

I felt that the film was ruined slightly by knowing what people say, and frequently the scene was destroyed by the character of the watcher. Mainly because of the fact that 70% of what is said is so inane. But also because I found the bodiless voice rather disconcerting.
Not knowing what anyone says would just add to the dream like quality of the whole film. It makes the film more about occasion, more about eavesdropping on something you have no idea about.
I kind of think it would even work better as a silent film, just opulent visuals and beautiful classical music.

So, in my opinion, to fully immerse into the dream like state of Russian Ark. Turn up the volume, turn off the subtitles and enjoy the spectacle of a film that is a piece of stylistic beauty.

(my goodness... I say Opulent a lot in this blog!)


Ibusuki said...

The problem with said opulance is it often comes across as rather tacky... on my trip to the winter palace, for instance, I was stunned by the white marble and red curtains, which looked lovely. All the ballrooms, though, were covered in gold gold gold gold gold gold. The stuff was bloody everywhere. It just looked a bit tasteless...

The Winter Palace and the Hermitage are superb buildings, though. The Communist architecture is stunning as well, though. It's industrial and quite steampunky. Also, the Moscow tube stations are the most stunning place in the country, that I've seen, they were communist :(

If the 18th centuary and the 20th were to have a fight, the 20th would win. Possibly not in terms of jackets though.

Captain James Amazing said...

But you see I'm of the opinion that all fights should be settled by jackets. Or shoes. Or hats.

I've never been to Russia so can't comment in a first hand capacity. However, I visited several Russian Orthodox churches when in the middle east and they have a similar love of all the gold in their decorations

fingersandtoes said...

I saw this in the cinema! So much pretty.