Starting with the main character/narrator (who is never seen in the film as his eyes are the window through which we see the film) announcing his death due to some unexplained accident, Russian Ark then opens up to a scene of a group of men and women, garbed in 18th century attire, exiting a horse-drawn carriage and entering a palace. The narrator/camera follows the group inside and is set upon a fantastical journey through the Winter Palace of Russia's Hermitage Museum. The camera flows through several different rooms of the museum in an unbroken, long take. Each room features a different time period in Russia's vast history, though not in the proper chronological order. The narrator sees several historical figures such as Catherine The Great, Peter The Great, and Princess Anastasia, to name a few. He also meets several other colorful characters who'd once lived at some point during Russia's history. To some of those characters, he appears invisible, while others manage to apprehend him, though the cause for this is never explained. On his journey, the narrator meets the acquaintance of the European, a foreigner and staunch critic of Russian culture who appears to be as much of an outsider as the narrator himself. The two decide to travel through the palace together, with the European negatively commenting on the paintings and other art featured in the gallery (at one point, when Russian music begins to play, he says that it gives him hives. The nerve!).
The European also proves to be quite a flirt, hitting on a blind woman, another woman from Russia's modern era, and several other women from the Renaissance era. The narrator and the European continue their travels which culminate in one of the most beautiful sequences ever committed to celluloid: a ballroom scene where the camera weaves and dances itself amongst the exuberant dancers. This then leads to the separation of the two travelers in what is the film's only truly sad moment and then the narrator looking out of the building onto the surrounding ocean, thus giving further meaning to the film's title as it can be interpreted that everybody who dies in Russia continues living on this ark that sails through the sea of time (hey, if Wikipedia says it, then it's good enough for me). This film could have easily turned into a documentary of sorts with the camera/narrator/the European assuming the role of a tour guide in a museum. But this becomes impossible given the stunning cinematography: the lights bathing the high windows, the sculptures, the paintings, the colorful characters in their flowy garbs re-living what is perhaps one of their happiest moments or what became for them a routine, us the viewers becoming one with the camera's steady and elegant movement through long halls. This film is mostly about the visuals. It truly is a major accomplishment in the cinematic field. One single take throughout the entirety of the film and not one of the many actors messed up or, if they did, they managed to conceal it masterfully. Everybody is at their A game obviously. None of the scenes come across as prepared, making us live in the moment with these people.
Russian Ark truly is a passage through time, rendering the final moments of the film that much more powerful. We really feel it as the last sands of time pass through the hourglass and we are awakened from our reverie. And I say awakened because in all its stunning glory, there is no denying that Russian Ark can at times become tedious and perhaps numb one's mind. But I think it's a great effect because the dialogue, scarce, does not really require an active mind. Instead, the visuals play upon the passive mind, imprinting their beauty into it. There is really no acting that can be singled out as amazing in the film, although I loved the character of the European. He is actually based on the nineteenth-century traveler, Marquis de Custine, who was not fond of Russia and refused to accept it as part of Europe. In the film, he died in Russia but finds himself on the ark now able to speak perfect Russian. He displays such arrogance that my finding him an appealing character worries me. The man is simply comical and quirky. Over time, you warm up to him, much like the narrator, making their eventual separation a really sad moment. Russian Ark features no conventional plot, no major character, no affecting acting, is at times boring and is all the more magnificent for all of it. The gimmick of the single, long unbroken take proves to be less of a gimmick after all and adds more to the visual charm of the movie. It contributes to its atmosphere of representing the passage and co-existence of time. A true masterpiece.