This scene, the most scripted in the film, is also the one where the aura is most potent. For the past hour Sokurov has been conditioning us to be unsure of when the actors in this film can see him and when they cannot. There’s no logic to it—some of the characters see Sokurov and the Marquis and some don’t. At times it even happens that someone who couldn’t originally see them suddenly does. This unreliability is one thing among crowds in public spaces. But now, at the acme of the Russian Empire and amidst a wobbly balance between the vanities of two civilisations, Sokurov and the Marquis are wandering through with their mouths open. The immaculate and lavish extras are constantly glancing into the camera, and I am staring back, I am looking hard to see if they see me. The only comparable sensation is the eerie, belated exchange that takes place when you look at a picture you’ve taken, and there on the sidelines is someone’s small, forgotten face frowning into your lens. Or rather, it’s like when seeing a play at a small theatre, the actors and I are so tightly together that I can plausibly believe that they can feel my individual gaze on them. In the moment they are both actors and regular persons of the kind I’d meet on the street, and I am—what? At times they stare into my eyes and I am thrown all out of balance: do I stare back as per my right as paid spectator, or do I succumb to the scummy feeling of the discovered voyeur and look away? When I wondered if that actor saw me sleeping during his performance, we entered into a rudimentary sort of relationship. You can have this relationship with a theatrical performance. You can even have it with a painting—remember how they say the Mona Lisa’s eyes follow you? Well, forget that. I’ve passed a few intense minutes when I’ve felt Rothkos looking at me. But Russian Ark is the only time in memory that I have felt it with a film. Right here in Tsar Nicholas I’s mammoth reception chamber I am having it with these scores of Russians standing in nice, tidy lines, as their gaze drifts from their tsar into Sokurov’s camera—that is, onto me. Am I foolish for wanting to look down into my lap? Or am I seeing now that Sokurov is not merely concerned with the representation of beauty? Have I become that mistake that mars their script, have I become the film’s proof of reality to itself?
Having had to work with some Walter Benjamin recently (and perhaps having to work with more of his work in the imminent future), this article by Scott Esposito on Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark was all rather timely. [via The White Review]