Back in 2002, director Aleksandr Sokurov stunned the film world with 'Russian Ark', a meditation on the history and legacy of the Russian State Hermitage Museum, covering over 200 years of Russian history presented as a single, unbroken 99-minute shot through the museum itself. It was an astonishing achievement, not just for its enormous technical mastery but for its unusual and distinctive statement about the relationship between history and art, and how cinema can approach both of them. With his latest film 'Francofonia', Sokurov has returned to these same ideas while turning his eyes to another historic centre of art and culture - the Louvre. Yet while ‘Russian Ark’ had a sweeping, orchestral quality to it, the current running under ‘Francofonia’ has a quiet ferocity to it.
Once again acting as narrator (though this time as himself), Sokurov leaves behind the one-shot technique and instead employs montage to cover the history of the Louvre, focusing specifically on the fate of the museum and its artworks during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Mixing archival footage, historical recreation, extraordinary new footage of the museum and the city and the artworks that populate the museum itself, ‘Francofonia’ once again glides along in a meditative state, fuelled by its creator’s musings on the relationship between art and history, and most specifically, war. The central relationship in the film is between Louvre director Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and Nazi diplomat Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), placed in charge by Hitler of preserving French cultural heritage deemed important. While on opposite sides of the political divide, the two men worked together (often against the wishes of the Nazis) to protect the works from the Louvre before the occupation.
This might make the film sound like it has some sort of linear structure or narrative, but while the story of Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich provides a basic frame for the film, Sokurov allows himself to follow different trains of thought at will. In that way, ‘Francofonia’ feels more like a visual essay than a film or documentary, but never to its detriment. The film explores the danger that exists when art and culture are faced with war and invasion, and while the Louvre is an instance where that danger was thankfully held back, he contrasts it with the experiences of his own country, where the invading Nazi army (and even the Bolsheviks themselves) recklessly destroyed much of the great artworks of Russian culture. The film also carries a strange metaphorical subplot of Sokurov in contact with a ship crossing the Atlantic during an horrific storm, full of shipping containers of precious museum artefacts that are dropping into the sea, objects of great importance so easily destroyed. There’s a danger ever-present in ‘Francofonia’, and while Sokurov mostly keeps the tone calm and inquisitive, the film occasionally boils over with an anger that is unexpectedly moving. There might be a strange, didactic quality to this film, but it overcomes the shortfallings of that by having something to say.
It’s also a magical, often charming experience. Once again, Sokurov concocts figures from the Louvre’s past to wander its halls, from French revolutionaries to Napoleon himself. Historical reenactments happen within a modern context, with Nazi officials walking down a street very obviously of our own time. There’s a sense throughout the film of history itself being present and constant, that every street corner was once a player in the great stories we read in text books, which in a way is a perfect perspective to have on the Louvre itself: an icon of French culture that has existed since before Paris itself was built. Much like ‘Russian Ark’, it’s a kind of biography of the building, one that brings the building to life in a magical and arresting way.
‘Francofonia’ feels more like a visual essay than a film or documentary.
From a technical perspective, ‘Francofonia’ is an absolute treat. The editing, cinematography and sound are a glorious, almost cheeky mix of tones and textures, making the film and the building at its heart feel alive. The one-shot technique would not have worked anywhere near as well here, Sokurov’s story of a much wider international scale, but the magic realism that made ‘Russian Ark’ so enjoyable is here in spades and yet is distinctive and impressive on its own terms. It will require a lot of patience from a casual movie-goer, but if you’re willing (like I was) to lie back and swim in the rich waters of this film, the rewards are enormous.
‘Francofonia’ is a gorgeous, thoughtful and unexpectedly moving film, one that genuinely considers the responsibility we have to our history and our culture, and more importantly, the responsibility we have to the history and culture of others. The Louvre is held as an example of one where the best outcome has taken place, but placed in contrast to those where the opposite has happened. Aleksandr Sokurov has once again cast his distinctive eye on a powerhouse of art and culture and brought it to life in such a magical way. It had me captivated from beginning to end.