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Film / Russian Ark

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Russian Ark is a 2002 film from Russia, directed by Alexander Sokurov.

The film follows an unseen narrator and his guest, a Frenchman named Custine, through the Russian State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg as they talk about the history of the city and the artifacts within the museum, bouncing around in time from the modern day to Joseph Stalin's era to Tsarist Russia and back again.

Russian Ark is something of a miracle in filmmaking: The entire film (around 93 minutes, excluding the credits) was shot using a single Steadicam in one continuous, uninterrupted take. When you realize that this film has over 2,000 actors in it, this feat becomes even more incredible.

This film provides examples of:

  • Building of Adventure: The Hermitage, especially when you can time-travel around it and see Russian royalty.
  • The Cameo: Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage, appears as himself, talking to his father Boris.
  • Costume Porn: A lot, seriously, a LOT of fancy costumes in this movie.
  • Darkest Hour: At one point Custine opens a door, which the narrator begs him not to open, and they find themselves in a cold, icy room filled with empty picture frames. They find a haggard workman, building a coffin that he says is for himself. Custine and the narrator have walked into the 1941-44 siege of Leningrad, in which over a million residents of the city died of starvation and some of the survivors resorted to eating each other.
  • Dead to Begin With: The Narrator. Maybe. The opening dialogue establishes that the narrator was in an accident and "everyone ran for safety as best they could." Of course, the true state of affairs is a bit Mind Screwy, what with him being able to interact with people from various different times, some of whom can see him and some of whom can't.
  • End of an Age: Present in the Romanov scenes, especially the ones where the family has dinner while Alexandra worries that she can hear gunshots. The grand ball that closes the film is the last grand ball ever held there, in 1913.
  • Epic Tracking Shot: They don't get more epic than 96 minutes without a cut.
  • The Everyman: Nearly a Featureless Protagonist, since all we know is that he's a male, present-day Russian.
  • The Faceless: Since the P.O.V. Cam sticks with the narrator for the whole movie, his face is never seen.
  • Foregone Conclusion: See those beautiful young girls in their gowns, running around the palace? Something very bad is going to happen to them.
  • Fourth-Wall Observer: The Marquis de Custine (aka "The European.") Subverted as he's talking to the Unseen Narrator.
  • Historical Domain Character: Several Tsars and nobles and the like, as well as the Marquis de Custine, the narrator's companion. The real Marquis de Custine visited Russia in 1839 and wrote a book about his experience. He was not impressed. The film's Marquis seems to have more respect for Russian culture by the end of the film.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Hinted at with the workman (see Darkest Hour above) during the siege of Leningrad. Custine notes that the workman looks well-fed. The workman tells Custine not to step on the corpses, and gets defensive when Custine asks where the corpses are. (In Real Life hundreds of thousands of Leningraders died of starvation during the siege, especially during the first winter, and many people trapped in the city did resort to cannibalism.)
  • Mind Screw: The narrator and his French companion Custine flit back and fourth over nearly three hundred years of Russian history. For a while it seems like no one can see them, until Custine starts interacting with people. The narrator for his part seems invisible to everyone but Custine — except for a time or two where he isn't, like the scene from the modern day where the narrator introduces Custine to some of his friends.
  • Narrator: He is never seen or named. All that is clear is that he's had an accident, and he is from the present time.
  • No Plot? No Problem!: A rare cinematic example of a video game trope. It's a meditation on Russian history, it's costume porn, it's an exhibition of a beautiful building with great artwork on the walls, but there's no story. Nothing actually happens. Though of course, if you know your Russian history, there is an ever present sense of what is about to happen, or has just happened in and around the building, felt most clearly during the coffin scene.
  • The Oner: Easily one of the most famous, extreme, and outright amazing examples of this trope.
  • P.O.V. Cam: From the narrator's POV for the entire movie.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: A tune by Mikhail Glinka is used during the final dance.
  • Real Time: That's what happens when you have one uninterrupted shot.
  • Scenery Porn: One hell of a pretty building.
  • Translator Microbes: Something is allowing the Marquis de Custine to speak and understand Russian — a language he apparently couldn't speak before the beginning of the movie. It may have something to do with him possibly maybe being a ghost himself. Probably. Maybe.
  • Unbroken First-Person Perspective: The entire movie is a rare, non-video game example. See 1947 Film Noir Lady in the Lake for another experiment in presenting a film in first-person perspective.
  • Unstuck in Time: The narrator and Custine bounce around from the the reign of Peter the Great to the modern day, completely at random.