Alexander Sokurov loves museums. The Russian director came to prominence
a few years ago with Russian Ark, a cinematic portrait of the Hermitage
in St. Petersburg (which was shot in one unbroken take). Now Sokurov returns
with FRANCOFONIA, a cinematic portrait of the Louvre which is also a meditation
on the link between culture and history. Employing a variety of devices
ranging from voice-over narration (in Russian but subtitled), reportage,
fictional scenes, portraiture, and historical footage, Sokurov has put
together a mesmerizing and moving film which works on many different levels.
FRANCOFONIA begins with the unseen director video-chatting with a sea
captain battling to keep his storm-battered, art-laden vessel afloat (symbol
of the elemental forces that rule all of life), then cuts to footage of
Anton Chekhov on his death bed, followed by inside-outside shots of the
Louvre (a temple for paintings). Next we see Paris in 1940
when it falls to the Germans and is declared an open city. Hitler appears,
framed by the Eiffel tower and smiling smugly at his conquest. Then a
Nazi officer arrives at the Louvre; his orders are to pillage the museum
and its vast collection of artworks, but instead this good German
conspires with the museum director to protect its holdings.
Napoleon Bonaparte and Marianne (symbol of republican France) also play
cameo roles in FRANCOFONIA, with Sokurov reminding us that much of the
great art in the museum was plundered by Napoleon during his European
wars: beauty often has bloody hands.
With its hypnotic look and feel, its unique take on the meaning and importance
of art, FRANCOFONIA is surprisingly compelling and engaging.