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The Rhythm Section

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The Rhythm Section

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Elegy of a Voyage is not so much a film as a symphonic poem in the impressionistic manner of Claude Debussy’s “La Mer.” Or, given that director Aleksandr Sokurov is Russian, perhaps a more apt example would be Alexander Borodin and his “In the Steppes of Central Asia.” There is no dramatic narrative, but rather the whole composition is a sequence of dreamlike visual impressions. And like a dream, there isn’t much logic in how one sequence relates to another apart from we seem to be going someplace. This can be problematic in that there are few things more boring than hearing about someone else’s dreams.

The redeeming thing about Elegy of a Voyage is that it was made by a very talented artist. Although the individual parts maybe unrelated, there is an overall haunting appearance. If you allow yourself to slide down into the film like a warm bath or mild narcotic, it is an agreeable experience. The thing is, it took me two tries to get to that point, but I felt it was worth the effort. This is an art film; if you gauge a film’s value by the number of car crashes per hour, you will be disappointed. (But then, if that is your gold standard, you probably are not going to grab this title from the video store anyway.)

Elegy of a Voyage is narrated by Sokurov who seems to be describing the scenes as they appear on the screen, saying things like “this appears to be a village that is abandoned... where are the people?” And then when the scene changes to a monastery, he says “... for some reason we are now in a monastery...” Just as someone might describe their dream from the night before.

Go West, Old Man

A sequence of dreamlike visual impressions
A sequence of dreamlike visual impressions

Given that a “voyage” is going from one place to another, Sokurov sets the place origin with shots of an abandoned Russian village seen through the window of a passing car. He says he knew the people who once lived there. Then the scene shifts to a monastery, a place of revived spiritualism and activity in post Soviet Russia... further establishing the nature of the starting point? We see monks and soldiers and everyday Russians.

Then we are on a road, crossing borders, seeing foreign towns and cities passing by, all at night and in moonlight and snow. At one point, we are onboard a ship moving through icy waters. Suddenly it is day and the snow is gone. We are at a roadside cafe that appears to be on the German Autobahn. A stranger is engaged in conversation and he describes his life’s philosophy and then leaves. Sokurov observes that he will never see this man again.

The journey ends in Holland. We are walking in a building under some kind of renovation. On the walls are large old Dutch master paintings. Several are considered by Sokurov and we end in front of Breugel’s painting “The Tower of Babel.” Sokurov says that he suddenly realizes this will be the last time he sees this painting.

Home Movie

Being dreamlike, Elegy of a Voyage also begs interpretation, so here’s my take on it. It might be construed that Sokurov has set the voyage to be one of going from the East to the West, from the cold dark of post Soviet Russia to the light warm liberal Holland. But perhaps there is also a note that in the East, there is a spiritual awakening, an anticipation of dawn and a spring thaw whereas in the West, life is easy and perhaps past it’s prime. In the end it’s a Tower of Babel, all folly and hubris.

As it turns out (and known only if you read the accompanying notes) there really was a trip westward taken by Sokurov from Russia to Holland, so in a sense Elegy of a Voyage is just a home movie. It is a mark of Sokurov’s genius that it is also so much more.

DVD Extras

Included in this DVD is also a short documentary by Sokurov from 1996 called Hubert Robert, a Fortunate Life. It is about a minor 18th century French painter named Hubert Robert. It was done as part of a series about the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Apparently, Robert was popular with the Russian nobility of that time and many of his fanciful views of imaginary classic ruins ended up in the Hermitage.

According to Sokurov, Robert was very prolific, which is a polite way of say that he was bit of a hack, cranking out product for an eager audience; an early version of our own Thomas Kinkade. There is a similarity in Robert’s dreamy vistas to Sokurov’s filmmaking and there is also vague connection with Elegy of a Voyage, which concludes in a gallery of old master paintings; Robert’s paintings are about places far away in time and space.

The particularly Sokurovian spin to Hubert Robert, a Fortunate Life is that Robert’s story is related by Sokurov as he sits in a Japanese theater watching a Noh play. Maybe it is a comment on Robert’s formulaic approach to painting? Nevertheless, A Fortunate Life is a nice little bit of film, even if it’s not obvious why it was included on this particular DVD. Perhaps I can bring this review full circle by citing Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures At An Exhibition” which is a Russian symphonic poem about painting. Not that Mussorgsky has anything to do with Hubert Robert, it just seems to be in the sprit of the occasion.

Picture and Sound

Very nice in both films. A perfect match of haunting image and music.

How to Use this DVD

The included “digital” notes are worth reading but could have benefited by an English-speaking editor. The trip in Voyage is explained, though I think that takes away some of the mystery of the film if you read it first.