A 19th century French aristocrat, notorious for his scathing memoirs about life in Russia, travels through the Russian State Hermitage Museum and encounters historical figures from the last 200+ years.
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An unseen man regains consciousness, not knowing who or where he is. No one seems to be able to see him, except the mysterious man dressed in black. He eventually learns through their discussions that this man is a 19th century French aristocrat, who he coins the "European". This turn of events is unusual as the unseen man has a knowledge of the present day. The two quickly learn that they are in the Winter Palace of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the European who has a comprehensive knowledge of Russian history to his time. As the two travel through the palace and its grounds, they interact with people from various eras of Russian history, either through events that have happened at the palace or through the viewing of artifacts housed in the museum. Ultimately, the unseen man's desired journey is to move forward, with or without his European companion. Written by
A 90-minute movie centered on St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum, filmed in one unbroken take by a digital steadicam, didn't send a lot of Americans racing to buy tickets when it was shown here two or three years ago. The movie, however, is far more than just a technical stunt. It's a unique tour de force with emotional impact.
Russian Ark portrays the Hermitage as a kind of cultural and historical ark floating on centuries of Russian seas. The narrative device is a shadowy eighteenth century Frenchman who wanders the halls and time periods, commenting often with good-natured European condescension on what he sees. He is accompanied by a Russian who is never seen, and who questions him about his comments. The movie ranges through time with appearances of Peter the Great, Catherine II, Pushkin, Nicholas II and his family, generals, maids, flunkies and diplomats. The Frenchman, played with great style by Russian actor Sergei Dreiden, takes us to painting and sculpture galleries, kitchens, ballrooms, storerooms, basements and living quarters as we observe things that happened in the Hermitage over the centuries.
At first, I was very aware of the technical feat of no cuts. Gradually, though, I think most people just relax and accept the skill of the director and photographer, and become immersed in what they are seeing. A kind of unreal imagery takes hold. The movie ends with the last dance held in the Great Ballroom before WWI. Hundreds of actors and dancers, in full costume, swirl around this ornate setting, and swirl around the camera as well, while the camera glides through the crowds. It's a terrific scene, and is followed by the end of the dance with all the hundreds of guests making their way through the halls and staircases to leave the building, with the camera facing them and moving along in front of them.
This is a highly unusual film, probably a great one.
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