With Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov made a cinematic breakthrough with what is probably the first single shot feature length film. Other attempts — such as Rope (Hitchcock, 1948), and more recently Before Sunrise (Linklater, 1995) and Before Sunset (Linklater, 2004), have made great use of a near totality in shot but have failed to end without one cut whatsoever.
…The European Vistor is in fact the Marquis de Custine
Sokurov is the voice behind ‘The Spy’, the unseen narrator who finds himself bewildered at awakening in the midst of a pandemonium outside the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. After entering the castle — and passing various entourages — it is instantly affirmed that the characters don’t acknowledge his perpetual presence. However, it’s not long before The Spy confronts the ‘European Visitor’ (Sergei Donstov), a belligerently scournful character, and the only character who recognises and converses with the The Spy during the whole tenure of the film. The European Vistor is in fact the Marquis de Custine, an aristocratic French writer whom denounced the validity of Russian culture in his diatribes “Letters from Russia”. Regardless of the hostile nature of Custine, The Spy follows his whimsical footsteps through the colossal passages of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage.
What follows is a biopic of around three epochs from the seventeenth century onwards. There are portrayals of some ceremonies that occured during their respective epoch, and every prolific character that had a say in the bizarre history of Tsarist Russia and beyond is featured — although Rasputin was typically away without leave. Many scenarios involved Custine interacting with characters, and of course ranting about the quasi-barbarianism of the Russia he scathed. There are many times when Custine’s thoughts are laughed at by The Spy, which I imagine is an inescapable criticism that a Russian filmaker would put upon the Marquis. My problem with this is that I thought much of what Custine said in his writings to be sensical, if indeed seasoned with tinctures of humour. Regardless, Custine’s position in the film is quintessential to depicting the pride Sokurov no doubt has in the glory of Russian monarchical history, whether it was in a quandary of despotism or not (it was). As time is slowly whispered on, Custine is made out to develop a taste for the Russian crunch.
…a blurry elongation to the shot which intensified the plethora of beautiful aesthetics
With such an epic tale to be told, it is unbelievable that Sokurov managed to film it all successfully on the fourth attempt. Although there were some negative aspects — such as some desperate actors glancing into the Steady Cam — the cinematic tapestry was woven beautifully. As The Spy would enter another glorious gateway in Rastrelli’s Hermitage, the camera would give a blurry elongation to the shot which intensified the plethora of beautiful aesthetics that the building has to offer. This camera techique was also used accordingly when Custine would find his arrogant self in heated confrontations with officers.
What disappointed me most, aside from the portrayal of Custine, was that just as the eerie recollections of some major occurences within the Tsar residency were becoming more intriguing, the film withered into a ridiculously long reenactment of the last ball that took place before the revolution of 1917. Yes, the garmenture worn was fabulous, and the constant movement of the camera was at times unbelievable. However, the last ball that took place is surely not something the Russian school curriculum puts up as the most important event of the Hermitage’s history. With the core of Custine’s diatribes being focused on the the absurd manifestation of European culture in an “Asiatic state”, it surely should have been in Sokurov’s interest to highlight what made Russia emerge from an imitator to an innovator in culture and politics: the Communist revolution.