I just stumbled across the DVD by accident in the "special interest" section. On the cover was typed a blurb from an Ebert review quite effusive in its praise. The cover's picture framed dancers in what looks to be 18th century attire, and a promise that the last scene is worth the whole movie. "Hmm.. sounds pretty good", said a little voice in my head.
My assessment in the store was a gross understatement. This movie was far beyond "pretty good" though was not at all what I expected. I thought I would be seeing a period piece of some sort set in Russia, perhaps involving intrigue or scandal. There were some elements of intrigue but they are presented by one of the most ingenious concepts ever executed on film.
The movie has no "plot" per se. Its cast consists of one or two actors and some 2000 extras. I later found out that it took 4 years of planning to pull off director Alexander Sukarov's vision. That is because Sukarov would only be granted access to the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, where the entire movie is filmed, for 36 hours. His plan was to make the film using a single camera, producing a 96-minute, uninterrupted shot. The shot had to be planned and rehearsed in excruciating detail well before the director would ever shout "action."
The result is stunning. The art alone, pictured in almost every sequence, is worth the entire movie. Three hundred years of Russian history is stored in the former "Winter Palace" and we are given a look at it, including original Rubens, Van Dycks, mind-blowing sculptures that have to be seen to be believed and the architecture of the palace itself - far beyond my ability to describe it justly.
Fairly early in the movie we are taken through a hall that looks like it was intended to be a copy of the Vatican while the main character, seemingly back in St. Petersburg as some sort of ghost, tells the voice behind the camera that the Russians were excellent copiers (to the mild disdain of the proud Russian we never see but can "hear" behind the camera). The two walk from room to room and slip from century to century - evidenced by occupants they pass, interact with or ignore - and not in any particular chronological order.
The dialog between them is sparse, wry and informative (and in Russian, thus the necessity of subtitles) of the various eras through which they pass. To call this an educational film however would hardly be fair. It is actually a directorial masterwork. Even the brilliantly-costumed extras play their parts perfectly, paying no attention whatsoever to the camera and sometimes not even to the two main characters, though when they do interact with "the European" the result is sublime.
In the final "scene" we are treated to a magnificent ball replete with an orchestra and dancers and party-goers who seem to transport us back in time. It feels as if we're spying on an actual historical event rather than a mere re-enactment. This probably has a lot to do with the setting. It is, after all, against this magnificent backdrop that the entire movie scene is filmed. The real star of this movie is the Hermitage museum and when the movie was over I wanted to watch it again.