Director: Alexander Sokurov
Cast: Vincent Nemeth, Johanna Korthals Altes, Alexander Sokurov
Watch Francofonia online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
A spiritual sequel of sorts to his 2002 film, Russian Ark, Francofonia sees Alexander Sokurov tour another testament to Europe’s cultural and historical achievements of the last few centuries. Instead of the Russian State Hermitage Museum, this time it’s the Louvre.
Sokurov narrates the non-fiction feature, but this is by no means a documentary, despite what its presence on the nominee longlist for 2017’s Oscars might have you believe. It’s foremost an essay film, albeit one where there are dramatised scenes with actors playing the central parts of figures like Napoleon Bonaparte and bureaucrat Jacques Jaujard, the latter of whom went against the Vichy government of 1940 to prevent the Nazi occupiers from extracting the Louvre’s contents.
Although he addresses elements of the machinations that brought the art and artefacts to the museum in the first place, and of how it was protected from being looted, Sokurov isn’t so much interested in the how of the Louvre as he is the why. Why people go to such lengths to stop a cultural legacy from falling into the wrong hands, and why the cultural legacy develops as it does (such as questioning where European culture might have gone without its fascination with portraiture to reflect back the lives of those who came before us). Posited early on in Sokurov’s narration is the question: Who would we be without museums?
If this at all sounds like a potentially dry sermon, fear not. Francofonia lacks the feature-length single-take hook of Russian Ark, but it is no less playful. Sokurov’s narration avoids a lecturing style, and the fourth wall is broken from the start, and repeatedly, by commenting on the very nature of the movie’s creation.
The film’s flexibility extends to having Sokurov have a dialogue with the on-screen Napoleon (Nemeth), who repeatedly pops up throughout to comment on history he wasn’t a part of (e.g. bothered by the presence of Prussians in his museum) and taking responsibility for the maintained existence of works like the Mona Lisa. Who would have thought that a freeform meditation on the meaning and timelessness of art would feature the funniest depiction of Napoleon since Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure?