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Russian Ark is an amazing technical achievement. It features a cast of thousands, it takes place across hundreds of years of Russian history, and it is all shot in a single take. But if that doesn’t impress you, then there’s probably no reason for you to see this movie.

Stroll Through a Museum

The real star of Russian Ark inspects his dance partner
The real star of Russian Ark inspects his dance partner

The camera is an off-screen I, walking through the halls of a St. Petersburg museum. A French tour guide (credited as “the stranger,” and played by Sergei Dontsov,) is the only one who senses our presence. He leads us from one room to the next, sometimes showing us costumed historical figures like Catherine the Great or Anastasia, sometimes telling us about the great paintings and sculptures in the museum (inevitably copied or imported from Europe).

Those familiar with Russian history and culture, might be able to discern a theme — whether self-deprecation at the lack of original Russian work in the museum, or about the psychology of a country that went from aristocracy to communism. But to this American, the tour offered no more continuity than a stroll through any museum offers.

Toward the end my boredom grew, until I found myself looking for extras who couldn’t resist looking at the camera. (There are some, in spite of the best efforts of director Aleksandr Sokurov and cinematographer Tilman Büttner.)

Camera Tricks

Still, the cinematography kept my eye glued to the screen. The camera was mounted on a steadicam, so fluid sweeps around stairways and statues were plentiful, and there were even zooms and perspective zooms to keep the visuals varied.

The film opens on carriages arriving; whatever the season, people are dressed without coats. Yet halfway through, the camera follows Catherine outside into the snow, the breath of her servants visibly condensing into fog. A minute after the camera comes back in, we see a glimpse of a summer’s day through a sliver of window.

Finally, the movie was shot on high-definition video. Most Americans will see this movie transferred to film. But in a deal with Microsoft, four Landmark theaters in the U.S. will get HD projectors to show Russian Ark, and Denver’s Chez Artiste is one of them. Except for the super-white subtitles and the occasional too-bright window, the movie looked almost as good as film. The HD projection was both a novelty and a high-quality projection system.

Limited Appeal

For me, Russian Ark was a must-see, simply because the single-take concept was interesting to me. The HD projector at the Chez made the movie even more appealing. The walk-through of Russian history was unimportant to my decision.

Now that I’ve seen the movie, the history has even less appeal. It’s disjointed and random and it requires a knowledge from its audience that I didn’t have. So on that level, I can’t recommend Russian Ark.

But for the photographers and film geeks, particularly in a city with an HD projector, don’t miss it.