Russian Ark’s Smooth Voyage Seems Like a Dream Play


Saint Petersburg’s opulent Winter Palace was first designed in 1711, then converted into a museum in 1764 as Catherine the Great acquired European masters’ artworks to build the continent’s greatest collection. Today, the State Hermitage Museum houses more than 3 million art objects, the bulk of which still come from Western Europe. Alexander Sokurov’s film Russian Ark (made in honor of Saint Petersburg’s 300th anniversary) presents the Hermitage’s collection within a flood of local history, as colorfully costumed figures representing several centuries’ worth of Russian royalty race through snow, glide down staircases, and pass through hallways over the course of one feature-length, unbroken tracking shot. A phantom pair guides the journey. The first man is the black-clad Marquis de Custine (played by Sergey Dreiden), a French intellectual aristocrat whose 1838 witnessing of life under the czar turned him from a staunch social conservative into an outspoken revolutionary; the second is an offscreen narrator (Sokurov himself) whose camera-eye roams with wonder from one gilded, dimly lit room to the next. The skeptic and the mystic debate whether Russia has successfully formed its own culture, stopping at times to take in Old World paintings and sculptures, until joining the hundreds-strong crowd of dancers at the Romanov dynasty’s very last great royal ball. The movie’s smooth voyage comes to seem like a dream play, suspended painlessly in time.