Russian Ark of Oddities


You’re cruising along through Netflix, and you innocently pause at a movie with an intriguing preview image. It kinda looks like a historical costume movie, a Russian one. You have an hour or two to kill, and don’t mind reading subtitles tonight, so you hit “play” and hope for the best. The result is like taking a tab of acid (from what I’ve heard, ehem) — because slowly, inexorably, weird things build up to a crescendo of WTFrock am I seeing here? What’s going on? Is this a documentary or fiction? Who are these people? What’s the deal with the hand-held camera / first-person thing? What period of history is this supposed to be? What the hell is everyone wearing and why?

Ladies and gentlemen, you are watching Russian Ark (2002).

Russian Ark (2002)


Critics praised this film for its innovation and freshness. Roger Ebert wrote, “Apart from anything else, this is one of the best-sustained ideas I have ever seen on the screen …. [T]he effect of the unbroken flow of images (experimented with in the past by directors like Hitchcock and Max Ophüls) is uncanny. If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening. Russian Ark spins a daydream made of centuries.”  Russian Ark won numerous awards at film festivals and other artsy-fartsy places. Because OMG the pretension level is off the hook! And I’ve spent most of my life as a seriously pretentious art-fag, so I should know. I just spent the whole 96 minutes wondering who the hell slipped something in my drink. This movie goes beyond merely artsy into realms of fantastical drugged-up historical dream sequence with no rhyme nor reason.

Russian Ark (2002)

But don’t trust these carnevale crazies to do your hair.

The viewer is following a guy, “the European,” around the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum in one never-ending Steadicam shot. So it feels like you are wandering around the palace/museum, which seems like a great idea, right? And at first, it kind of looks like you’re in an earlier period, sometime in the 19th century, judging by the costumes. The first people you see are wearing vaguely Victorian gowns with exaggerated hairstyles that made me think of the 1830s. But that European guy is in stylized but basically modern clothes, so it’s unclear what era you’re really in. And it changes up every few scenes.

Russian Ark (2002)

You follow these two couples from the beginning & end up at the grand ball with them at the end. Why? Because art?

The camera keeps moving, and you’re backstage at a performance being held for — wait for it — Catherine the Great. Who really needs to pee, she exclaims. So you’re in the 18th century? The costumes are not exactly period, and the wigs are that bright white fakey style. But don’t worry, you’ll leave that era fast enough (if you were ever really in it; don’t ask me, it’s the drugs talking).

Russian Ark (2002)

“I am the Empress and Autocrat of All the Russias! Where the hell is my chamber pot?”

Russian Ark (2002)

Very, very vaguely going for Russian court garb, but failing spectacularly.

Russian Ark (2002)

I have no idea why her courtier is running around in stocking feet, carrying his shoes. But I’m sure that’s an important plot point that would have helped my understanding of this film. Right?

You / the narrator / the cameraman and the European roam around the museum part of the Hermitage A LOT, including the modern part with 21st-century tourists looking at the art. The European talks with some old dudes about art and says they smell like formaldehyde (he’s really into smells — is he on drugs?). You all make a little detour for the European to try and get some action with a blind chick off in one of the palace’s galleries. No idea what’s going on, but it takes about 20 minutes of the film wandering around there, including getting lost in some storage rooms.

Russian Ark (2002)

Least impressive Marquis ever.

Russian Ark (2002)

The actual blind leading the figuratively blind.

Opening random doors leads to watching a super-formal military/court ceremony and the preparations for a giant fancy dinner using Serves china. The European is totally impressed by that, but we don’t get a closeup, so it could be crap for all I know. Then you follow some dancing girls dressed like fairies (no lie) who lead you to Tsar Nicholas II and the fam having breakfast (hush, no spoilers about the Bolsheviks!).

Russian Ark (2002)

This might have been the only scene that made sense, except it lasted for about 10 seconds.

Finally the movie ends up at what is supposed to be Tsar Nicholas’ last grand ball at the palace circa 1913. Except the costumes are all the ones we’ve seen throughout the movie, which are a mishmash of 1820s through 1890s plus a lot of prom dresses fancied up with more feathers and ruffles. Historical accuracy is not this film’s strong suit; tripped-out historical-style fantasy is where it’s at. An orchestra plays, costumed figures dance, it goes on and on, the scene is lovely though, to me, it looked like nice footage from a particularly nifty costume ball I might have been to at some point (maybe it’s the drugs again?). I mean, I like a dance scene in historical costume movies as much as the next person, but this thing goes on. And on. And on. This ball is in real-time.

Russian Ark (2002)


Russian Ark (2002)

They’re referring to Pushkin, so maybe this is the 1830s?

Russian Ark (2002)

But here’s the ball everyone’s walking into, & the theme is apparently “formal wear of the 19th century with bonus Russian bits.”

Russian Ark (2002)

Fully committed to sparkle motion.

Russian Ark (2002)

Ruffles, feathers, oh my!

Russian Ark (2002)

Everybody mazurka!

Russian Ark (2002)

If I was there, I probably would have had a good time. But watching it is a bit like watching unedited home movies.

Russian Ark (2002)

WTFrock is going on with those gowns on the left?

Russian Ark (2002)

Wacky 1830s hair!

Russian Ark (2002)

Super Russian style.

And then everyone leaves. And you’re watching them leave or, rather, you’re walking with the massive crowd, down the massive staircase, as everyone slowly walks out. Also in real-time. You’re walking. Just walking. WTF movie? What just happened? I don’t get it!

Russian Ark (2002)

OK, party’s over.

Russian Ark (2002)

Let’s go home.

Russian Ark (2002)

No really, let’s GTFO.

Russian Ark isn’t the worst way to spend an hour or two. The fact that this is the longest uninterrupted shot in film history is pretty cool. But if you’re looking for plot or dialog or a consistent time period, nope, not gonna get that. Consider this one giant historical costume Russian fantasy drug trip, and you’re good to go!



About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

20 Responses

  1. mmcquown

    There are some extant photos of the Tsar and friends in costume for a ball, possibly the one referred to in the film. I’ll see if I can scare them up. The movie does indeed sound rather pharmaceutically inspired.

  2. Kendra

    I tried to watch this years ago, mostly because I wanted to see the 18th century costumes… But being very firmly in the “MUST HAVE PLOT” camp, I ditched out. Now seeing those screenshots, I’m glad I didn’t bother. I DO like the 1830s hair, tho!

  3. Josephine Boone

    I thought the ending explained the dreamy, ahistorical quality. Not knowing much about Russian historical costume, I enjoyed it a lot…especially the handsome officers! ;)

  4. Susan Pola

    I saw it too thinking it was a synopsis of Russian History from Peter I founding his city to the tercentennial in 1913. Boy, was I wrong. I agree about the spiking your drink of choice with hallucinogenic drugs. Costumes were awful.

    The Hermitage has actual garments of Catherine I, Elizabeth Petrovna (Elizabeth I) and Catherine II (The Great), Marie Feodorovna, Alexandra Feodorovna and OTMA. So does the palace at Tsarkoye Selo — Alexander Palace.

    So why would costumes be off. Massive amounts of Drugs.

  5. Janette

    I think it was intended to be a reflection of pre-revolutionary Russia. PIty they forgot about the other 98% of the population. I do recall watching it, because it was Russia and the Hermitage and being rather disappointed. I have watched other films that are essentially plotless and loved them because they are about something.

  6. lesartsdecoratifs

    Russian Ark is all about the accomplishment of that one unbroken shot. That’s also pretty much the only reason why one should watch it.

  7. Elizabeth Merritt

    That first paragraph is the best description of Russian Ark I have ever seen! Totally a WTF film if you just stumble upon it. That wacky 1830s stuff is the most redeeming thing, costume-wise.

  8. Elisabeth

    This movie is about the story of Hermitage Museum (and so a little bit of Russian History). When you are very into Russian History, you could quitte easily recognise the characters. (Peter the Great and his wife Catherine the I, Catherine the Great, Pushkin and his wife Natalia, Nicholas II and his family, the Director of the museum discuting with his own father who played a great part during the WWII in saving the Museum during Leningrad siege).
    Director Alexander Sokurov is known for his strange movies; He also did one about the Louvre Museum (called “Francofonia”).

    The European is supposed to be the Marquis de Custine:

    The final ball scene is NOT the 1913 ball as it is gathering together all the characters form all the periods. It’s supposed to be a gathering of all the balls which took place at the Hermitage palace.

    The ball music is directed by the great conductor Valery Gergiev,

    I agree aout the 18th century outifts, they’re not very accurate. I think the movie is quitte successful in the 1830 and in recreating the 149th Russian court dresses.

    Hope this helps to understand this OVNI-movie! :-)

    • Madame Desaix

      Yeah, right answer. Also is a kind of homage to the Russian “grandeur” before 1917. There’s even a short sequence where the “Marquis” opens a door that leads to a “revolutionary” moment, we see a kind of soldier (or whatever he may be) in a room filled with what appears to be coffins, both the marquis and the narrator leave immediately. It’s a dream-like fantasy about the Hermitage, a kind of “ark”(chest) containing what the director considers the best of Russian History. All the people in the movie are (supposed to be) ghosts from a better and long gone past. I love the movie but you need to be patient to watch it. I agree with you that the Russian-style formal court dress are great, specially the “modernized” kokoshniks.

  9. Pina

    Well, the Wikipedia article introduces the film thusly: “An unnamed narrator wanders through the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. The narrator implies that he died in some horrible accident and is a ghost drifting through the palace. In each room, he encounters various real and fictional people from various periods in the city’s 300-year history. He is accompanied by ‘the European’, who represents the Marquis de Custine, a nineteenth-century French traveler.” I haven’t actually seen the film so I can’t know how coherent all of this came across on screen, but the explanation makes the plot seem much more comprehensible and interesting I think.

  10. Angela

    I loved this film – I think it’s more like a poem than a prose work, if that makes sense. So rather than a plot (a happens, then b, then c, etc.) it’s like a dreamy reverie about Russian history, and most importantly, Russian identity. I took the Hermitage to signify Russia, which like an arc is tossed between Europe and Asia.

    The costumes are quite funny at times, some are great but others are very ‘theatrical troupe’.