An entirely novel film essay about art that crosses borders.



The films of the Russian director Alexander Sokurov have sometimes embraced a minimalism that brings them into the sphere of the avant-garde, but that is not the case with this 2014 production even though the film is totally individual in its approach. In this country Sokurov probably made his greatest impact with the documentary Russian Ark (2002) famous for consisting of a single camera movement. That film took us through the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, but it is another museum, the Louvre, that is featured here albeit that late on the film does briefly find Sokurov returning to the Hermitage. However, his aim is less to give a detailed museum tour than to reflect on the importance of art and its presentation as illustrated by events during the Second World War. 


Despite the emphasis on documentary footage including newsreel material from the past as well as old photographs, Sokurov uses actors to explain what became the shared aims of Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), the German who entered Paris with the Occupation forces in 1940 with a remit regarding cultural property, and Jacques Jaujard (Louis Do de Lencquesaing) who was then in charge of the Louvre, the treasures of which had in large part been transferred for safety to French chateaux.


Supplying his own voice-over, Sokurov ponders the history of the Louvre and the value of portraiture in particular while philosophising about the importance of art and celebrating the mutual understanding between these two men, enemies who both revered art and appreciated the need to preserve it. That art helps us to learn from the past is one of the film's themes, but Francofonia is an eccentric work. Its visuals and sensitive use of music underline the fact that it is a thousand miles away from the crass commercial tone of the film that Margy Kinmonth made about the Hermitage in 2014, but its oddities are sometimes off-putting. The presence of additional actors as ghostly representatives of Marianne, that French icon, and of Napoleon is one such example. So too is the emphasis on this being a film in the making (there are three shots of clapperboards and the enacted sequences are presented in a more limited ratio so that we can see the sound rack on the left of the screen). For that matter a present-day contact between the filmmaker and a ship's captain transporting art treasures yields little. The most effective piece of stylisation comes at the end when an off-screen Sokurov tells Wolff-Metternich and Jaujard living in the 1940s what their futures will be. This is a curious, interesting film but not always a satisfying one.




Cast: Louis Do de Lencquesaing, Benjamin Utzerath, Vincent Németh, Johanna Korthals Altes and with the voices of Alexander Sokurov, Francois Smesny and Peter Lontzek.


Dir Alexander Sokurov, Pro Pierre-Olivier Bardet, Thomas Kufus and Els Vandervorst, Ph Bruno Delbonnel, Ed Alexei Jankowski and Hansjörg Weissbrich, Music Murat Kabardokov, Costumes Colombe Laurent Prévost.

Idéale Audience/zero one film/N279 entertainment/ARTE France Cinéma-Curzon Artifical Eye.
88 mins. France/Germany/The Netherlands/Japan. 2014. Rel: 11 November 2016. Cert. 12A.