Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov.
Yet another (dull) night at the museum?
This dull, slow moving and pretentious documentary looking at the history of France’s famous Louvre museum comes from Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov, who gave us the visually impressive Russian Ark, a tour through the famous Hermitage Museum that was shot in one long, continuous take. No such cinematic ambition here though as Sokurov uses a mix of archival footage, dramatic reenactments and stylistic flourishes to tell the history of the Louvre in the 1940s during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Francofonia is a dry meditation on the importance of art and culture and history and continues the filmmaker’s preoccupation with these big themes.
In particular he concentrates on the uneasy alliance and reluctant admiration that developed between Jacques Jaujard, the Louvre’s curator, and the aristocratic Nazi officer Franz Wolff-Metternich, an art historian charged by Hitler with overseeing the confiscation of valuable art works. But when Wolff-Metternich arrived at the Louvre he discovered that most of the important art works had already been secreted away to a safe location. Although on opposite sides of a bitter conflict, the two men were drawn together by an appreciation of the beauty and importance of art. They worked together to preserve the remaining art works, resulting in Wolff-Metternich eventually being awarded France’s highest honour for his work in safeguarding France’s cultural heritage.
Sokurov eschews a normal narrative approach to the material here, adopting a more experimental approach that blurs the line between fiction and documentary and makes the film something of a challenge for audiences. Actors play key roles in reenactments. We get Napoleon (played by Vincent Nemeth, from The Woman On The 6th Floor, etc) who boasts about the art works he stole for the Louvre. And there is a mystical ghostly woman (Johanna Korthals Altes) who is meant to represent the French ideals of freedom, equality and brotherhood. But the film is disjointed and meandering, and often self indulgent, especially in the opening scenes, and this gives it a lack of clear focus.
There is some archival footage of Hitler arriving in Paris to survey the conquered territory, but Sokurov gives this a humourous quality by superimposing some imaginary dialogue over the footage. However, Francofonia has been nicely shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Big Eyes, etc) and his use of sepia tones adds to the material.
Sokurov occasionally shows us some of the art works in detail and he muses on how the western world reveres art works while fanatics like ISIS are systematically destroying valuable art works and religious iconography in the name of a poisonous and misguided ideology.
“Where would we be without museums?” the director muses. Francofonia is more of a personal historical essay from Sokurov, and is fairly dry stuff that is of limited appeal for a mainstream audience.