Aleksandr Sokurov’s stock in trade since before the collapse of his native Soviet Union has been a body of films dealing intricately with the connections between history, nationhood and high culture. Although his popularity is predicated mainly on the success of his 2002 one-take achievement Russian Ark, many of his other works – particularly his 1997 critical breakthrough Mother and Son – have honed in on more intimate human matter than the choreographed museology of Ark. The effort screening at SFF 2016, Francofonia, attempts an amalgamation of these attitudinal threads within Sokurov’s oeuvre, hybridising documentary and fiction forms into an unusually compelling take on the essay film. Although misfiring on occasion through Sokurov’s idiosyncratic and not always convincing understanding of French cultural history, the film’s inventiveness and intelligence still make it a fine addition to one of Russia’s most interesting directorial careers.
Something that Sokurov remains able to do with greater finesse than any other living filmmaker is create docu-fictions which actively address his own flawed position as auteur; a task indispensable to Francofonia given its subject matter. The film takes, as a rough starting point, the evacuation of thousands of invaluable French artworks from the Louvre during and after Nazi Germany’s occupation of the northern half of the country. The numerous implications bound up in this pragmatic decision for the French people, their culture, and fine art on the whole are explored for the rest of Francofonia, on at least four planes of narrative/reality/focus/whatever you may wish to call it. Firstly, we see Sokurov himself, cogitating in his book-filled office on how best to make the film we are watching, sporadically attempting phone calls with a Dutch sea captain (presumably fictional) who is navigating stormy seas to deliver Louvre artworks for him to analyse. Secondly, we spend time in the Louvre for real, both viewing the paintings and sculptures on display, and being loosely guided by Marianne, the embodiment of France, and Napoléon Bonaparte. The third layer involves extensive use of archival historical footage exploring Vichy French political manoeuvring, narrated by Sokurov, and the fourth is the only purely fictive one, as the experiences of two real-life wartime arts administrators attempting to protect French cultural heritage are imagined.
Impressively, this complex and self-referential structure never feels obtuse, aided by a canny understanding of when to puncture the high-art philosophising with a wink to the creative process. As an on-screen character, Sokurov is constantly grumpy at both the terrible quality of his video calls to the Dutchman and the similar white-noise image of the sea which threatens his shipment. The implication is a wry admission that he cannot truly define the nature of the Louvre and its artworks when both are so far away – and indeed, when both are ultimately ephemeral. A similar moment of self-awareness comes during the story of Mssrs. Jaujard and Metterlich, the public servants. A young Jaujard arrives awestruck at the Louvre in probably the 1910s, and then, barely for a second, a young family in modern clothing walks past in the background. Later, modern cars can be glimpsed in purportedly wartime scenes, and tourists can be seen relaxing at the museum in the same shot where German fighter planes fly overhead. These instances of anachronism point to the impossibility of genuinely pinning down a moment in time, and constitute Sokurov’s admission of his own innate fallibility as a narrator.
Some other segments are less effective. On one hand, the studies of real Louvre artworks are always gorgeously lit, with the constantly panning camera quite literally bringing these centuries-old figures to life, especially paired with Sokurov’s musings in voiceover. On the other, the anthropomorphism of Marianne and Napoléon feels like too conscious a throwback to Russian Ark, and generates some moments of unintentional humour – Marianne riding in the passenger seat of a museum loading trailer yelling “liberté, egalité, fraternité,” for example, is a little too silly to ring true. Furthermore, the sole truly fictional piece is uniformly the weakest in the film: without enough screen time to become a truly engaging story, and straining to inject some of the reflexivity of the rest of Francofonia through unnecessary framing gimmicks, Jaujard and Metterlich’s imagined travails are far less interesting than what Sokurov has to say as a quasi-documentarian.1
In the end though, Francofonia is a satisfying and stimulating success. By exploring the contents of the Louvre through the lens of catastrophic war, the film expresses the innate duplicity at the core of art: that it is a vital contributor to building and defining national culture, but wholly volatile and vulnerable to permanent destruction at the hands of that same culture. There are few filmmakers working today literate and confident enough to explore these ideas with earnestness – Aleksandr Sokurov proves with this work yet again that he’s one of them.
Around the Staff: