Art’s often precarious journey through history
It will be impossible to neatly package “Francofonia” into a brief and accurate description, because Alexander Sokurov’s dense, enriching meditation on the Louvre and specifically (but not exclusively) the museum’s status during WWII defies categorization. More accessible than “Faust,” though definitely not one for the History Channel, “Francofonia” will please the Russian auteur’s fans but is unlikely to win him new converts.
Viewers who have been following the director’s career since the early days will be especially attuned to the way he incorporates so many themes he’s addressed before, from the early documentaries about artists to his pics on 20th century rulers and, of course, “Russian Ark.” It would be wrong though to think of “Francofonia” as a summation, since that word connotes a certain finality, and it’s clear that Sokurov has much more to say about art’s often precarious journey through history.
A constant shuffling of layers is one of the film’s hallmarks: It cuts from deathbed photos of Chekhov and Tolstoy to a Skype conversation that Sokurov has with a ship captain, then shifts to the warm glow of 1940-set scenes between Louvre head Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and German officer Count Franziskus Wolff Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath). In between are lessons on the Louvre’s centuries-long construction; archival footage of Parisians getting on with their lives during the Nazi Occupation; reflections on how portraiture MPAA rating: Not rated Running time: 1:27 Opens: Friday shaped European civilization; and the spirit of Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth) walking the museum’s grand galleries, occasionally encountering the personification of France, Marianne (Johanna Korthals Altes).
Does it all come together? Well, yes, if viewers think of the film as a freewheeling poetic essay, highly personal yet captivating. The pic’s core (or perhaps merely the hook?) is the relationship between Jaujard and Wolf Metternich, vanquished and conqueror, and how both men were intent on protecting the Louvre’s treasures.
By the time the Nazis rolled into Paris in 1940, almost all the works of art had already been transferred to a series of safer chateaux across France, but the highly cultured, French-speaking German aristocrat would go on to defy his commanders and continue to keep France’s museum holdings protected from deportation to the Third Reich.
Sokurov, a devoted Fran- cophile, ponders why the Nazis safeguarded Paris while deliberately destroying so many cities of Eastern Europe, especially Leningrad, whose Hermitage suffered so greatly during the War. Perhaps it’s the same reason why we still feel a kick in the stomach when watching footage of Hitler in front of the Eiffel Tower: Paris represents more than just France, just as the Louvre is more than a building full of extraordinary masterworks.
Most everyone will agree that “Francofonia” looks terrific. Sokurov has designed a rich and varied palette of textures and tones that makes for constantly renewed visual pleasures. Some images have an amber patina like the centuries-old varnish on Old Master paintings in the Hermitage, while dramatizations from the early1940s have a flickering glow that imitates color nitrate stock screened through a carbon-arc projector.
Oddly, no production designer or art director is credited; the print shown in Venice has a sweeping orchestral coda at the finale but no end credits.
Mariannne (Johanna Korthals), the personification of France, and Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth).