“An elegy for Europe” reads the tagline on the poster of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Francofonia. No, it is not a lament on the monetary and migrant crisis’s currently causing great riffs across our continent, although that never stops this illustriously intelligent introspection from feeling any less relevant.
Instead, Sokurov’s interests lie in Europe’s past, specifically the Second World War, which he cogitates upon here through the historical examination of Paris’ Louvre Museum. Through a combination of archive footage and re-enactment, the distinctive visionary director builds his narrative primarily around the relationship between Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), who was the Director of French National Museums at the time of the German invasion in 1940, and Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), the Nazi officer sent by Hitler to oversee France’s art collection.
Sokurov has exhibited a passionate regard for museums before in his 2002 single-shot soliloquy Russian Ark, which wandered wondrously through the halls of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. With Francofonia, he combines the pointed poeticism and technical virtuosity of that film, with the meditative magnificence of Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery.
Structurally laid out like a mind map of ideas, and accompanied by a voiceover from Sokurov himself that’s ripe with meta, Francofonia considers how those connected to the history of the Louvre individually viewed the importance of culture, and offers lessons on the museum’s creation and construction in between. Segments set in Paris following the invasion show Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich as representatives from two opposing forces, who shared a singular goal; to ensure the protection of the priceless pieces of art stored in the French capital. While flashbacks to the time of Napoléon (a delightfully arrogant Vincent Nemeth), reflects on an age when art was not considered symbolic of cultural significance, but as trophy’s earned through victory on the battlefield.There’s a discursive nature to Sokurov’s style, rambling asides involving Skype conversations with a stricken ship struggling to carry its artistic cargo across the sea, which do prevent Francofonia from reaping the richest of rewards; the lack of a clear focal through-line occasionally cloaking the film in an impenetrable density. However, it’s impossible not to be swept up by his storytelling, which is expressed with a yearning love for the subject he is discussing – Sokurov has long been recognised as a fervent Francophile – and a fastidious determination to impart as much knowledge as possible.
Those who have seen Russian Ark will not be surprised to know how visually captivating Francofonia is; a 360° panoramic shot of the present Parisian skyline, layered with Luftwaffe jets and mirrored against an illustration of the city before it was built, is both an encapsulation of Paris’ rich beauty, and the director’s impassioned devotion to his craft.
Indeed, that’s what’s truly at the film’s core – not just affection for France, Paris or the Louvre, but artistry itself. Lingering shots of the Venus do Milo and Mona Lisa capture the enduring exquisiteness of such creative masterpieces. In Sokurov’s eyes, art is a fundamental life source not just to Europe’s civilisation, but the world’s. And this tender tribute is a testament to its timeless significance.