Disc Spotlight: One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich

By  · Published on August 17th, 2011

For a filmmaker who completed only seven feature films in his lifetime, Andrei Tarkovsky has made an enormous impact. In addition to his artistry, perhaps the enduring fascination with his work has to do with the story of a life cut short. After all, several European filmmakers who were born before Tarkovsky, like Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, are still around and making new films. Each of Tarkovsky’s seven films are brilliant works that each possess an ambition towards perfection and cinematic transcendence, but when bringing the filmmaker’s abrupt death by lung cancer into the equation it’s difficult to avoid the saddened feeling that there’s a great deal more time-sculpting he had left to share.

So it makes sense then that the number of documentaries about Tarkovsky (or prominently feature the filmmaker) far exceed the number of films the director himself completed, and this fact gives a clear indication of his broad cinematic influence. These films are made because people want more, and desire to understand the depth of Tarkovsky’s work better. Films like Voyage in Time (1983), Moscow Elegy (1987), Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (1988), and Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky (2008) have examined the auteur’s method, life, philosophy, and impact. But easily the best documentary about Tarkovsky thus far is French visual essayist Chris Marker’s One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1999), recently released on DVD by Icarus Films.

The Film

Arsenevich is a unique documentary in that it’s a merging of two wildly different cinematic personalities. Marker, most famous for his only fiction film La Jetee (1962), approaches the non-fiction medium as an avenue for lucid essays on life and culture in films like A Grin Without A Cat (1977) and Sans Soleil (1983). Conversely, Tarkovsky is famous for his extremely long takes and his methodically slow approach to storytelling. On the surface, these two filmmaking styles are incompatible, but Marker implements his precise editing style to explain Tarkovsky’s significance and influence in a way that only Marker could, and keeps a critical distance that never makes the film a hagiographic overview while maintaining a genuine and thought-provoking depth of appreciation for Tarkovsky’s artistry. Never would I have thought that Tarkovsky’s time sculptures could be appropriately explained through montage of all things, but Marker achieves exactly that, and does so stunningly.

Arsenevich opens with Tarkovsky’s son visiting his father in Sweden after not having seen his parents for five years. Andrei and his wife expatriated to Western Europe in the early 1980s, where he made his last two films Nostalghia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986) in Italy and Sweden, respectively. Trakovsky was on his death bed as a result of his sudden battle with lung cancer shortly after wrapping The Sacrifice, and the Soviet government had prevented Tarkovsky’s family from joining he and his wife in the West until it was evident that the filmmaker was enduring his final days.

Trakovsky’s death works as the narrative frame for Arsenevich, using incredibly personal home video footage to great effect, and from the get-go establishes a fluidly melding of the life of the person with the art he created. Trakovsky’s films, after all, are intensely personal, reflective of his views on subjects like nature, time, family, and faith. The greatest strength of Marker’s work here is his ability to approach these auteur-defining subjects between all areas of the filmmaker’s life in a way that feels fluid and natural, ostensibly reflective of the Tarkovsky’s own relationship with his work. Arsenevich covers a broad array of topics within and related to Tarkovsky’s films, drawing connections the presence of art to the symbology of trees to the role of animals in each of Tarkovsky’s films.

But most importantly, beyond the incisive narration, Marker lets Tarkovsky’s images speak for themselves. It’s simply the juxtaposition of the particular images chosen from each of his films that allows for even the most fervent Trakovskyphile to reflect on the man’s work in a new and fascinating way. In 55 minutes, Marker manages to add volumes to a decades-long conversation about a brilliant filmmaker, and in doing so allows room for even more interpretations of these seven films.

The Disc

While Arsenevich is the disc’s main attraction, Icarus has included two additional short documentaries on Russia: Sergey Dvortsevoy’s In the Dark (2004) which follows the daily life of a blind basket weaver in suburban Moscow, and Marina Goldovskaya’s Three Songs About the Motherland (2008), a personal essay about living in a country that continually changes its relationship with history. These supplements clearly posit the disk as marketed to an audience broadly interested in Russian cinema and/or personal documentary filmmaking. However, while the film Arsenevich itself is about a famous Russian, it was made by a French documentarian for French television, so the connective threads between these three short form documentaries are rather tenuous. While they’re all worth a look, the disc may have better served its most natural audience (Tarkovsky and/or Chris Marker fans) by featuring supplemental materials by or about either of these talented filmmakers.

Bottom Line

For anybody that is, like myself, a big fan of Tarkovsky’s work, One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich is a perfect means to more thoroughly engage with the work the work of a master, not to mention another strong visual essay by equally talented Marker. It’s simply fascinating to watch this appreciation manifest as a stylistic merging between two iconoclasts. For those who may be frustrated by or are starting to delve into Tarkovsky’s work, this film is also useful as a masterfully articulated supplement to further understand an important artist’s essential contributions to the art of filmmaking.

You can purchase One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich on Amazon here.