Director Alexander Sokurov’s love for art and culture was made evident in 2002’s “Russian Ark”. Using a single 95 minute take, this historical drama explored over 33 rooms in Saint Petersburg’s Winter Palace (now part of Russia’s State Heritage Museum). The film is impossible to categorize. It’s rich with dramatic elements while at the same time examining three centuries of Russian history.
Fast forward 14 years to “Francofonia”, a similarly difficult film to classify but equally stimulating in its exploration of art and history. This time Sokurov’s focus is on the Louvre museum in Paris, but it’s not just about the building or its history. There are several interconnected layers built around it that Sokurov comes back to again and again. The Louvre is the most important character in the film, yet it mainly serves as the anchor for Sokurov’s contemplation and reflection.
“Francofonia” hops back and forth between the past and present, between fact and fiction, between historical accounts and provocative metaphors. In an almost documentarian style Sokurov’s own narration carries us through his mélange of subjects offering an assortment of information and perspectives.
One of the film’s focal points is the relationship between the French director of the Louvre Jacques Jaujard and German officer Franz Wolff-Metternich, the Hitler-appointed overseer of French art and culture. The two met during the Nazi’s occupation of Paris during World War 2 and worked together to save and preserve the Louvre’s collection. The dramatization is presented in bites and surrounded by a medley of historical and artistic thought.
Sokurov takes time to examine the origins of the Louvre, Hitler’s march into Paris, and the mindsets of Parisians and the French government. He documents the hiding of the Louvre’s paintings in different châteauxs south of Paris – a desperate attempt to keep them out of Hitler’s clutches. All of this is visualized through some incredible old reel footage and photos.
But if that weren’t enough, Sokurov also takes time for deep, thoughtful meditations on art. Some of the focus is on the art itself such as the unique European intimacy with portraits or the timelessness of early civilization pieces. Other meditations ask some compelling questions. For example why was Paris spared when so many other cities were bombed? Could it be the city was saved by none other than the glorious art itself?
This captivating intersection between art and war is something Sokurov is eager to explore. He reveals how the art of the Louvre and war itself are historically inseparable. In addition to its relevance with the German occupation, the film shows the ghost of Napoleon roaming the museum halls reminding everyone that he was responsible for bringing much of the art to the Louvre – many pieces being spoils of his war victories.
Much more could be said about “Francofonia”. Categorizing it is nearly impossible, but breaking it down is a rewarding challenge. I think the film could best be called Sokurov’s canvass, and on it he presents a collage of thought, reason, and reflection. It is exquisitely shot from start to finish and intellectually honest in how it approaches each of its subjects. It’s certainly not a film for everyone, but I found myself absorbing every second.