It could be the most ambitious shot in the history of cinema. Certainly, it's the longest. Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark, which is set within the resplendent confines of St. Petersburg's Hermitage ' home to over 200 years' worth of czars and now one of the world's largest museums ' consists of a single scene that goes on for about an hour and a half, the camera gliding up and down the marble staircases, past the gilt-framed masterpieces. But this is no mere gallery walk. Sokurov, who spent over four years preparing for one afternoon of taping, recruited thousands of extras to help him tell a kind of ghost story about the Russian empire. Not that there's a story per se. But by the time it's all over, we realize that a whole way of life has passed before our eyes ' pre-revolutionary Russia as experienced by those who were revolted against.
That would be Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and, finally, Nicholas and Alexandra, all of whom make brief appearances, going about their business as if unaware that they're neither alive nor dead. (Catherine's literally looking for a pot to piss in.) Also scuttling about the place is a small army of Russian aristocrats ' the men in military uniforms, the women in ball gowns. The movie culminates with a restaging of the final royal ball held at the Hermitage, not long before the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace. And as Nancy Reagan was reported to have said after taking the royal tour several years ago, it's easy to see why the Russian people revolted: The sheer splendor of the surroundings is both intoxicating and infuriating. As for Sokurov, some critics have accused him of being more intoxicated than infuriated, insufficiently proletarian. I think he's more intoxicated than infuriated, too, but not with aristocratic life. I think he's intoxicated with aristocratic death.
There's a pallor hanging over the film, a smell of formaldehyde in the air. And what we realize, while moving from room to room, is that Sokurov's Hermitage is less a museum than a mausoleum ' the place where those nostalgic for Russian imperialism go to die. Or to live forever. The movie's final image, of a door looking out onto a vast body of water, suggests that we're aboard a ghost ship, Ã la the Black Pearl. Russian Ark isn't nearly as fun to watch as Pirates of the Caribbean, but it's a lot more daring ' an entire movie that takes place in "a single breath," to use Sokurov's words. And it even has a Johnny Depp equivalent in the form of Sergei Dontsev, who plays a French diplomat with a casual disregard for all things Russian. Wickedly effete, Dontsev's Frenchman is our tour guide through this haunted house of a movie. He may not be alive himself, but he sure knows where all the bodies are buried.