“Francofonia” is a floating visual meditation on one of the famous museums in Europe. Alternatively baffling and fascinating, it freely looks around not only the museum and its historical background but also many other things to be mused on by its director, and I sort of enjoyed the movie while often being frustrated with its scattershot stream of consciousness.
The early part of the film consists of fragmented thoughts from its director/writer Alexander Sokurov, who previously made “Russian Ark” (2002) and “Faust” (2011). Because I disliked the latter when I watched it around late 2012, I was rather reluctant to watch the former even though I bought its Blu-ray copy several years ago, but I found myself being quickly enthralled by Sokurov’s daring and exciting filmmaking experiment at the Russian State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg when I finally saw “Russian Ark” during last Saturday night, and I must admit that I had some expectation when I came into the screening room for watching “Francofonia” during last Sunday afternoon.
At his office somewhere in Paris, Sokurov’s mind randomly ruminates on a number of things while he is barely communicating with the captain of a freight ship which is struggling through a mighty sea storm somewhere in the middle of ocean. While the purpose of their satellite communication is vague to say the least, it looks like there are some important museum artworks among many other cargos in the ship, and there is nothing Sokurov can do about this desperate situation except helplessly watching the precarious state of the ship.
He soon comes to reflect on his movie project on the Louvre Museum in Paris, and the movie floats along his flow of thoughts associated with this invaluable historical site. While it is one of the monumental architectures in the French history, the Louvre has also been well-known for its vast and various collections of artworks, and we occasionally behold its grand architectural designs while also looking closely at some of its prominent sculptures and paintings including, yes, that famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci.
Like the Russian State Hermitage Museum, the Louvre can be regarded as a big ark of the human art history, and we hear about one particular dangerous time in its long history, which becomes a sort of main narrative in the movie. Before Nazi Germany invaded France during the World War II, heaps of artworks were sent away from the museum in advance for safety, but they were still in danger of being looted or destroyed as Nazi Germany occupied the half of France and the rest of the country was under the rule of the puppet government headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain.
Shortly after the German Army entered Paris, Jacques Jaujard, who was the curator of the Louvre during that time, met Franz Wolff-Metternich, a German officer who was tasked with ‘protecting’ the artworks in not only the Louvre but also other major museums of France. Besides their opposing positions, Sokurov tells us how different these two men were from each other. While they both fought as soldiers during the World War I, Jaujard was from a plain middle-class family while Wolff-Metternich grew up in a respectable aristocratic household, and they would probably have never met each other if it had not been for another war between their countries.
Probably because of their common love of art, Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich secretly worked together to protect the priceless artworks of the Louvre. While Jaujard cooperated with Wolff-Metternich on the surface, Wolff-Metternich deliberately inhibited his looting operation although he knew well about the whereabouts of those hidden artworks. In addition, he also gave some extra help to Jaujard from time to time, and he was later vindicated by Jaujard after the war was over.
Shuffling between archival footage clips and fictional scenes as accompanied with Sokurov’s reflective words, the movie gives us a dense visual experience decorated with interesting elements. The scenes between Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich are presented in 1.33:1 ratio with the texture of old film stock, and we constantly notice the audio signals on the left side of the screen. We sometimes see a French woman wandering around the hallways of the Louvre and repeatedly murmuring “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity”, and we also meet Napoléon Bonaparte, who pompously moves around in the museum as reminding us that some artworks in the Louvre were actually loots from the beginning. In a number of notable scenes, Sokurov puts his characters in our contemporary background, and this intentional discrepancy looks amusing especially when Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich have a serious conversation amid a bunch of the 21th century Parisian children.
However, I am not so sure about whether I understand enough what is shown in “Francofonia”, though this curious arthouse film stimulated and engaged me with ideas. While there are several wonderful individual moments to admire, the movie seems to keep searching for something to anchor everything unfolded on the screen, and I am afraid that its cacophonic finale may make you scratch your head in the end.
Compared to the magnificent technical achievement in “Russian Ark”, “Francofonia” is a minor work, but it is more engaging than “Faust” at least, so I recommend it although I only got the small glimpses of the Louvre on the whole. That was disappointing indeed, but, what the heck, I may go there for myself someday.