The idea of decadence is culturally entrenched, and tied with notions of grandeur, ceremony and ultimately, class. The festive period seems a pertinent moment to explore representations of decadence in film, at a time of year where the class divide in society appears at its widest.
Released in 2002, Aleksandr Sokurov’s experimental historical drama Russian Ark is an incredible technical achievement that gives the audience a tour through some of the most decadent cultural artifacts in Russian history. The film’s 90-minute run time consists of one continuous shot as cinematographer Tilman Büttner weaves his way through The State Hermitage Museum gallery in St Petersburg, accompanied by the director, a team of technicians, 167 trained actors and over 1000 extras in period costume.
The film’s protagonist, an unseen narrator whose eyes we look through, journeys through the various rooms and encounters key figures from the last 300 years of Russian history. Short snippets of conversation build empathy and pose simple ideas in simple language, allowing room for our own interpretation.
In order to render the tension between Russian and European history on-screen, a French Marquis befriends the narrator and comments on paintings and sculptures in the museum, as well as the period dress, dance and music of the historical moments we see through Sokurov’s vision. The Marquis deliberately provokes the narrator and the authorities within the building by throwing into question the authenticity of Russian history, pointing out the Greco-Roman artefacts and the European paintings collected by Catherine II displayed within the vast, lavish gallery rooms.
Russian art is posited as only a borrowing of Europe’s mistakes and culture, and infused with a nationalist sympathy for the country’s development as an Empire before the implosion of the Tsarist autocracy during the Revolution of 1917. This is contentious ground, especially for a film that is to be released in Russia. However, while this may seem a self-destructive move by director Alexander Sokurov, he ultimately defends Russian culture by questioning the Marquis’s arrogant statements, effectively symbolising a native voice speaking out against the indifference Europe has historically maintained in relation to Russian cultural production.
The film combines discussions about art and life, about time, and about which moments in time are worth recording or remembering. Not only is The Hermitage seen as the focal point of St Petersburg, but it serves to justify the existence of Russian culture as a phenomenon in the world.
As the camera follows the Marquis through the building through different rooms dedicated to theater, to military ceremony, to gallery space – and a poorly-lit room which uses stacked picture frames to evoke the threat of the Blockades, we are told that ‘one must not trust this world.’ Culture is to be interpreted rather than believed, as we, the audience, interpret the temporal shifts.
What remains consistent is the sense of precarity. The characters know the fate of the historical figures they encounter, but we are viewing this film through the lens of the present moment, which establishes a sense of dramatic irony. For us, now, it is the Neoliberal moment. A moment in which the dichotomies between class, gender and race have never been so-well articulated, and yet they persist. The uncertain prospect of life in the UK post-Brexit, post-potential mass migration due to war, famine and climate change all throw into alarming relief the question of what constitutes culture worthy of preservation. What really makes a nation? Is nation even a valid term within a globalised economy?
The Hermitage museum represents, for Sokurov, the essence of what makes us human. The items inside the building are paradoxically global and distinctly Russian in the way they have been collected and displayed in relation to one another, in the same way that each shot of the film is framed not by chance, but as an aesthetic choice. And yet, absolutely nothing is mentioned of those who do not have the time, inclination, or access to such cultural markers of class.
The Marquis mentions how Stasov’s architecture in the gallery embodies a love of discipline, but leaves space for breathing within the contours of the walls and ceilings and marble floors. It seems a shame that Russian Ark does not leave space for other ways of being to exist alongside the upper-class catalysts in national economic change. Many voices are sorely missing from the ark, which, as the digitally-enhanced final shot suggests, is a literal ark of culture keeping humanity afloat during a violent flood spreading across the world.
Perhaps this notion of absolute inequality lies at at the heart of this idea of decadence: it is impossible to maintain forever. It alienates the majority of the population. It is loud, it is bright, it operates across discourses of religion, philosophy and military ceremony. It colludes with power. It pits the fruits of empire against the muted lives of those used to construct it. In the same way that culture is hermetically preserved within the building, the ways of life engendered by the decadence of the 18th century are sealed within the structure of the film, with the scale of its artistic and technical merit remaining impervious to critical interpretations seeking to empower the voices that remain excluded.