Russian Ark (Russkiy kovcheg)


Ghosts in the Hermitage.

Ghosts in the Hermitage.

(2002) Historical Fantasy (Wellspring) Leonid Mozgovoy, Sergei Dontsov, Mariya Kuznetsova, Mikhail Piotrovsky, David Giorgobiani, Maksim Sergeyev, Natalya Nikulenko, Aleksandr Chaban, Vladimir Baranov, Anna Aleksakhina, Lev Yeliseyev, Oleg Khmelnitsky, Alla Ospienko, Artyom Strelnikov, Tamara Kurenkova, Svetlana Gaytan. Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov

Russian Ark was filmed in the famed Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, which the tsars called home from the time of Peter the Great until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was also produced in one long shot, a la Hitchcock’s Rope and as viewers travel the corridors among the magnificent artworks of the Hermitage, they meet figures from history who lived and worked there.

The story concerns an unseen narrator (Mozgovoy) who is referred to in the credits as “The Spy.” He wakes up after an accident of some sort and finds himself on the grounds of the Hermitage. He enters the palace with a group of revelers, and discovers that the year is 1814. He turns a corner and comes face to face with Peter the Great (Sergeyev). How can that be?

And so it goes, traveling through the passageways, not in one time or another but phasing out, not unlike Billy Pilgrim of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, although writer/director/producer Sokurov integrates this much more smoothly into his storyline than Vonnegut did.

The Spy is joined by a 19th century French nobleman, the Marquis de Custine (Dontsov) who has sharp opinions on Russia and the Russian court, where he was stationed at length during his career. The womanizing Marquis helps the Spy navigate the hallways, past beautiful paintings (some of which are explored at length), through sumptuous balls and court functions, through intrigue and, occasionally, tragedy. This leads to a revelation as to what they are doing there; keep the title in mind at all times.

It’s an ambitious project, with a cast of more than two thousand actors, with only a small portion of them credited, and three orchestras supplying background music.  Part of the movie’s problem is its subject. The Hermitage is a natural venue for a movie, but it is a curse as well; you want to linger among the vast hallways, galleries and salons, examine the artwork. Of course, if the filmmakers were to do that, you’d have a 100-hour long movie.

Likewise, some of the characters that pass through the movie are fascinating, such as Catherine the Great (Kuznetsova), for whom Sokurov obviously held a great deal of affection. In her prime, she is a natural force, a storm that sweeps the Russian landscape and changes it forever. In the twilight of her life, she is a doughty old woman, trudging like a bulldog through the snow of the grounds, unmindful of obstacle or anything else, her steely gaze straight ahead. It’s truly a charming portrayal.

At what point does a concept become a gimmick? The single shot idea could certainly degenerate into gimmickry; even Hitchcock had trouble with it, but it works here. The overall effect is of walking the halls of the Hermitage yourself, making the camera your ultimate point of view. Although the time changes are sometimes dizzying (you move from an elegant modern-day art gallery to a badly damaged room during the siege of Leningrad during World War II in one sequence) and disorienting, it also creates susceptibility in the viewer, for you literally don’t know what’s coming next or whom – or when – you’ll encounter.

Being of Russian heritage myself (my mother’s family hailed from the Ukraine), I found Russian Ark’s commentary on Russian life not always flattering, but always honest and completely scintillating. There is a Russian stoicism permeating the film; life happens and the filmmaker seems to shrug at tragedy and death with a “what can you do” kind of fatalism.

It was not so long before this was made that these guys were an evil empire, but the Russian people have had to overcome a great deal of hardship during those transitional years in shrugging off the communist government they’d pioneered. I don’t think Russian Ark could have been made in quite the same way under the communist regime, but it is hopeful that Russians are embracing their history – warts and all – instead of sweeping the unfavorable bits under the rug.

Russian Ark is a visually stunning, compelling film that takes us through Russian history and art, two areas largely unknown in this country. Even without the spectacle, it’s worth seeing just for the opportunity to learn a little more about that enigmatic country. You should seek this out – it is one of the best movies of the last decade and remains to this day one of the highest grossing Russian-made films in the United States.

WHY RENT THIS: The magnificent artwork and corridors of the Hermitage. Novel concept. Epic sweep of Russian history.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: A few eerie moments.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The entire film was shot in one continuous shot which was choreographed and pre-planned to the very last detail. What you see is the third take – there were two flubbed attempts that thankfully occurred in the first ten minutes. Oh, and the Marquis de Custine was an actual historical figure.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a 48 minute documentary feature on the history of the Hermitage, as well as 43 minute making-of featurette that details all of the issues and preplanning of this massive undertaken, which included three different orchestras, almost 2000 actors and 33 different rooms of the museum all filmed in one continuous shot.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.7M on an unknown production budget; despite the epic scope of the film, I believe that it was profitable in the end.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is like nothing else that’s come before or since.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: My Country, My Country

 

Unknown White Male


Unknown White Male

Doug Bruce is haunted by the blank spot that is his past.

(Wellspring) Doug Bruce, Rupert Murray. Directed by Rupert Murray

We are a product of the things we remember. Our lives are shaped by our experiences, our book-learned knowledge and our relationships. All of this resides in our memory. Who would we be if our memory failed us?

That’s what happened to Doug Bruce, a handsome and successful British expatriate who had been raised in a well-to-do family, become a success in Paris as a stockbroker, then abruptly quit the financial business and moved to New York City to study photography. From what it seemed, he was in the process of reinventing himself already when he received the ultimate reinvention.

One July morning in 2003 he awoke to find himself on a subway train with no idea how he got there or where the train was going to. A few moments later, he had a far more chilling revelation; he didn’t have any idea who he was, where he lived or what his name was.

He got off the train at Coney Island and made his way to a police station and explained the situation. They sent him in turn to a hospital where doctors examined him while the police tried to find some clue about who he was. He was carrying no identification on him, no wallet but he did have a backpack in which a phone number was written on a book he was carrying.. The police called the number and had the woman on the other end speak to the amnesiac, but she didn’t recognize him. However when her daughter saw him on television, she knew immediately who he was.

This documentary is about Doug and his journey to in essence rediscover himself. The filmmaker, who also narrates the film, was friends with Doug before the amnesia. That works both for and against the film. He has knowledge about Doug both before and after the amnesia which makes him something of an expert. However, his friendship with the subject puts his objectivity in the wastebasket. Whether or not it’s a fair trade-off is really for the viewer to decide.

As the film progresses, Doug loses his immediate need to reconnect with his past and slowly begins forging his own personality, one which according to his friends differs significantly from his old one. In essence, he becomes an entirely new person, one who only shares a body with the old Doug Bruce. The ramifications of that are astounding when you think about it.

It should be noted that full retrograde amnesia of the sort that Doug is afflicted by is incredibly rare and is usually temporary – in fact, it is so rare that the condition becomes permanent that medical professionals have raised questions about whether Doug’s condition is a hoax. There has been additional speculation about that in the press.

I am not nearly qualified enough to render an opinion one way or the other and only bring it up in the interest of full disclosure. I will only say that we know so little about how the brain works that anything is, in my opinion, possible and those neurologists who say that Doug is faking because of some absolute belief that they understand how the brain works is arrogant and foolish. Let’s just say that it is theoretically possible that someone could suffer a complete and permanent retrograde amnesia and leave it at that.

What matters to me is the movie and from a standpoint of holding my interest it certainly does that. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have no memories of your past; it would be as if you had died and been reincarnated in your same body. The thought makes my skin crawl.

I would have like to have been given more background on the medical side; there is an indication that a severe physical trauma or emotional trauma is normally what triggers this kind of condition, but Doug showed no signs of either. Doctors are in fact puzzled at what might have caused his condition (although an unrelated pineal tumor is discovered later in the film); in fact, no cause has been pinpointed to date for Doug’s condition and his memory has yet to return.

So who is Doug Bruce and what is to become of him? These are the questions that Murray attempts to at least partially answer and in all honesty, these are questions that are ultimately unanswerable. It is hard enough to figure out who we are with the benefit of our experience and memories; to do so with a blank slate must be frightening indeed. I do not envy Doug Bruce in the slightest, but I will admit that his story raises some questions that will have me pondering for quite a while.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie raises fascinating questions about the role of our memories in determining who we are.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The possible causes for his condition aren’t adequately explored.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some profanity and the subject matter is on the adult side, but all in all it’s suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bruce was raised in Nigeria.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an update on Bruce’s condition.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: O’Horten

Strayed (Les Egares)


Nobody does sensual like French cinema.

Nobody does sensual like French cinema.

(Wellspring) Emmanuelle Beart, Gaspard Ulliel, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, Clemence Meyer, Samuel Labarthe, Jean Fornerod. Directed by Andre Techine

In times of war, ordinary people are sometimes caught up in extraordinary situations, leading them to do things they never would have considered in simpler times. When the world turns upside down, we sometimes find ourselves relying on those we might not have otherwise.

Odile (Beart) is a schoolteacher and mother who has already given a great deal to the war. Her husband was killed early on during the German invasion of France. With the Nazis knocking on the doorstep of Paris, thousands of terrified citizens flee for the countryside and what they thought was safety. Odile and her children, teenaged Philippe (Leprince-Ringuet) and young Cathy (Meyer) are driving down a refugee-choked road when German bombers suddenly, viciously drop bombs on the road and gun down survivors. The three barely escape and watch their car get annihilated. When Philippe panics and begins to run, he is hauled down by a young man with a shaven head who we later find out is named Yvan (Ulliel), saving him from the guns. Yvan leads the family into the woods.

After spending the night in the woods, a new experience for the children who up to then had lived a privileged existence, Yvan discovers a large villa in the woods. It has been abandoned by the owners but otherwise is perfectly habitable, with food stores, running water and electricity. Yvan wants to break in and stay in relative safety there; Odile, with her middle class standards, abhors the idea and urges them to find a village or someplace where they can stay. Yvan convinces her that the children need rest and a place to clean up and have a meal. He essentially winds up breaking in whether she likes it or not. Soon, they are living there as a family.

However it is a dysfunctional family. Odile is contemptuous of Yvan, thinking he is wild and uncouth. However, she recognizes that without him, they would be unable to survive as he supplies them with food when the stores left behind run out. At first she wants to hike to a nearby village but when that nearly turns into disaster, she retreats back to the villa, there to stay.

For Yvan’s part, he is attracted to the older woman in a sexual way. The other children look up to Yvan as a big brother, perhaps even a surrogate father – the latter role Yvan is all too happy to play. As the family begins to rely on Yvan more and more, Odile becomes oddly attracted to him. It’s as if she is reverting to a more primal mode, wanting to keep a provider close at hand by any means necessary.

The idyll, as complicated as it already is, becomes more so with the arrival of two French soldiers. Yvan, feeling threatened, wants to kill them so that they don’t report the squatters to the authorities. Odile is glad to have the gentle Robert (Labarthe) for company and the carefree Georges (Fornerod) as well. However, under the surfaces of each member of this drama are secrets unbeknownst to one another. When they rely on each other for their very survival, what will become of them when those secrets begin to emerge?

Beautifully photographed in the area around Castres, France, Techine brings an idyllic quality to the country home and its inhabitants. The horrors and realities of war are far away from this secluded spot. Beart is wonderful as Odile, a widow coping with the loss of her husband and increasingly vulnerable in a harsh world. When a life preserver is thrown her way, her instincts tell her to resist but inevitably she reverts to a different state of mind, one of the primal urges of women early in human history in which finding a provider was paramount, so being attractive to those providers became a survival skill. Odile doesn’t even realize that she is operating on this basis.

Ulliel, who appeared in the excellent Brotherhood of the Wolf, has a very complicated role to take on, and he handles it extremely well. Yvan has grown up on his own and lacks many social graces and even basics, such as reading and writing. He is often unsure how to act or react in the presence of a beautiful woman, and his own raging hormones begin to guide him. He is alternately cruel and kind, uncaring and helpful, angry and hurt. In other words, like most teenagers, he is going through a maelstrom of emotions, sometimes several at once.

Leprince-Ringuet is also impressive as Philippe, who is a few years younger than Yvan yet worships him as a hero. He is desperately searching for a role model now that his father is gone and he uses Philippe to fill that void, perhaps unaware of the consequences of that to his mother. When Yvan casually rejects him, he turns on Yvan as only a hurt, rejected young boy can.

The family’s struggle to find food and shelter without being detected by Nazis or by the police of the Vichy government lend an air of palpable suspense that permeates the film. While not an overt thriller, it nonetheless carries elements of that genre and integrates it nicely into the overall feel of the movie; the idyll being one that doesn’t belong to them and one they know they must pay for eventually.

The movie does move very slowly towards its climax, and is somewhat talky in places. I love good dialogue as much as the next guy, but sometimes silence and circumstance can be a far more effective tool in getting the story across.

As good as Beart is here, when she turns the corner from being suspicious of Yvan to being attracted to him, the emotional shift doesn’t feel genuine. I understand how it could happen but the writers and Beart failed to make the connection onscreen. I think the movie would have benefited had they done so.

Other than those quibbles, this is a solid movie. Lately I’ve found myself having a great deal of affection for French cinema, and while this isn’t the finest example of it out there, it is nonetheless worth seeing if you can find it (I know it is available on Netflix, which is where I found it). I urge you to watch it with a good bottle of wine to wash it down with – French cinema, like French wine, alters perception in subtle ways.

WHY RENT THIS: Masterful performances by Beart, Ulliel and Leprince-Ringuet bring the tensions of an untenable situation to life. Gorgeous cinematography of the French countryside that will gladden the soul in an otherwise bleak tale. Director Techine creates a marvelous air of tension that permeates the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The sexual attraction between Odile and Yvan, while natural on his end, doesn’t make as much sense on hers. The movie can be a bit too talky in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Some terrifying wartime violence, smoking, drinking, nudity and sex between a teenaged boy and an adult woman. This is definitely for adult audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is based on the novel “Le Garçon aux Yeux Gris” by French novelist Gilles Perreault.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Nobel Son