About halfway through Alexander Sokurov’s extraordinary 2002 film Russian Ark, a movie that takes the form of a surreal tour of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, a woman who’s holding forth about a certain painting pauses to observe that “there are so many symbols we can only guess about.” Indeed. The painting in question, Van Dyck’s Virgin with the Partridges, is, to be sure, enigmatic. But by the time you’ve gotten this far into Sokurov’s film—with its unchronological tableaux of pre-Revolutionary moments (a glimpse of Nicholas and Alexandra at tea with their children is followed by a ball given by Alexander I), its jarring juxtapositions of imperial grandeur and human crudity (Catherine the Great hurrying away from a lavish private performance because, as she cries out, she must have a “piss”), its unsettling repetitions (one long scene is repeated in toto), and its many surreal gestures (the woman lecturing on Van Dyck happens to be blind)—you can’t help thinking that the remark about unfathomable symbols is meant to refer to the film itself. Despite the smoothness of its surface—the result, not least, of the fact that it was shot in one unbroken take, the longest in film history—the movie is nonetheless continuously ruffled by jagged intrusions of elements that are ostensibly inexplicable but clearly, somehow, meaningful. Small wonder that another character in Russian Ark stops at one point to ask himself, “Is this a dream?”
Dreams, as it happens, fill the movies of Sokurov. “Last night I had a dream” are the first words spoken in Mother and Son, the 1997 feature that made the director’s international reputation. (He had begun in the 1970s as a documentarian and then became a disciple of Andrei Tarkovsky, some of whose intensely devotional, meditative style Sokurov absorbed while giving it a secular, psychologizing, oneiric cast.) An almost unbearably intense, virtually wordless study of the final hours of a terminally ill middle-aged woman whose son has come, perhaps a little reluctantly, to be with her, that film begins with a dialogue between the immobile, recumbent mother and the handsome young son about the dreams and nightmares they have both been having. (“That means we have the same dreams!” the son concludes. “Yes, we do,” the mother exhaustedly responds.)
The film’s companion piece, the unsettlingly homoerotic Father and Son (2003), also begins with a dream—a bad one, in this case: we first hear, and then see, a teenaged boy moaning in distress as he gradually wakes from a nightmare in his father’s arms. (They are both naked; the nature of the moaning is not, at first, entirely clear.) Later on, the father remarks that his son’s dreams “are getting out of hand,” a conclusion with which it is hard to disagree, given that the boy nearly kills the father in his dream—a not-too-subtle expression of his submerged yearning…
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