Francofonia: Sokurov’s Living Museums, or How to Gaze at Art

Francofonia_4At the 2015 Venice Film Fest, the Russian entry, Francofonia by the acclaimed Alexander Sokurov, had the highest ranking among international film critics.

Sokurov’s work is so original, so idiosyncratic, and so iconic that it’s hard to compare him to other filmmakers, past or present.  He is an artist who has created his own genre–like a tall monument that continues to rise with each new panel.

Francofonia_5The director describes Francofonia as an “optimistic film and by his own standards it is,  compared to his cycle of  films exploring the corrupting effects of power. The first three chapters were dedicated to prominent leaders: Moloch (1999) about Hitler, Taurus (2000) about Lenin, The Sun (2004) about Emperor Hirhito.  In 2011, he shot the series’ last part, Faust, a retelling of Goethe’s tragedy, for which he the Golden Lion Award.

Francofonia is a more of a companion piece to the celebrated Russian Ark (it played in 2002 Cannes), a mesmerizing meditation shot entirely at St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum in one long take.  And now he turns his focus to Paris’ most famous museum, the Louvre, which is one of the film’s co-producers.

Self-reflexive, the film places Sokurov at the center, locked in his cluttered Parisian apartment, surrounded by art books and Apple computers, before letting his cameras tracks through the streets of Paris all the way to the Louvre.

Via Skype, he receives calls from Dirk, a ship’s captain transporting artworks across the ocean in a container that’s beset by high seas storms and might be lost forever.

Francofonia_1I cannot think of another director who makes the past so vivid and relevant to the present by blending art, history, politics, and biography through visually hypnotic images.  If only museums could talk? For him, galleries are not just repositories that capture history in paintings or photographs. Focusing on “The Louvre Under German Occupation,” he explores the uneasy relationship between Jacques Jauhard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), the Louvre director, and Nazi officer Count Wolff-Matternich (Benjamin Utzerath), trying to understand the forces that shaped these men, their feelings, motivations–and ironic futures.

After the fall of France, the museum was turned over to the Nazis and the artworks were hidden away in a château. Jaujard despises the Nazis and supports the resistance, but he finds in the Nazi functionary an unlikely ally. Their unusual alliance is tense and risky to both but it also shows signs of friendship. Meanwhile, Napoléon (Vincent Nemeth) wanders around, exclaiming “C’est moi!” in front of his portraits, and there is Marianne (Johanna Korthals Altes), who represents the spirit of the French Revolution through dance.

Francofonia_3Sokurov is showing us how to look: By gazing at these paintings in context we bring the stories behind them to life. There is one brief stunning moment, when he turns his attention away from France. While the Louvre artworks were “under control” by this peculiar alliance, children in Russia were dying of cold and starvation in the snow. Sokurov’s unsentimental treatise on the survival of art in war conflicts is particularly timely now, given the destruction of treasures by ISIS and other forces. Every frame in the film comes to life by his witty, free-flowing, multi-layered narration.

Here is a director who still believes in the spiritual power of cinema to transcend national history and biography and unite and elevate us  beyond our particular situations and problems.