NZIFF ’16/09 – FRANCOFONIA

2015; written and directed by Aleksandr Sokurov; 88 mins

Like Gianfranco Rosi, director of Fire at Sea, I’ve heard about Aleksandr Sokurov so much, particularly because of his groundbreaking, one-take 2002 film, Russian Ark* but I’d shied away from really diving in and giving his work a go. So, here we are with Francofonia, a docudrama essaying the life and times of The Louvre.

Sokurov sets his cards on the table early on during the opening credits, classical music plays over the sound of typing at a computer keypad as the director tries to communicate with with a seafaring friend via Skype. We know straight away that this will be a very modern look at this most central of classical, world art bastions. Utilising reconstructions, video chat, CG, drone technology, old film footage and a mosaic-like sound design to construct a non-linear narrative, what we are given is a fascinating, exhaustive collage of ideas, questions and historical intrigue.

The main question seems to be: what price art? The film discusses the museum’s status as a centre for the colonialists’ cultural gutting of conquered nations and also the human toll of seafarers lost whilst shipping artifacts from Africa and the Middle East round to France. This gets given a modern context through the broken Skype conversation, in which Sokurov’s friend shows us his art-laden ship caught in a horrendous storm, weighing up whether or not to let some containers go.

This is also reflected in one of the film’s largest threads, the Nazi Occupation. Here we see reconstructions of curator Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and Nazi ‘Kunstschutz‘, Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath) and their working relationship. The film shows how Wolff-Metternich was instrumental in working alongside Jaujard to keep the Louvre’s artworks in France and also out of the cities rather than being stolen or bombed out of existence. These men knew the consequences that hung over both their heads for collaboration and yet they both knew that the works must endure.

If I have problems with the film – and I definitely do – they are twofold: firstly, there is way too much narration from Sokurov. A bit – fine. On more than one occasion, though, it’s doing that thing which Wim Wenders does in Tokyo-ga, it tells you what’s in front of you, or it spells out the ideas that it’s already evoked through the imagery. There are times when the camera is examining a piece and Sokurov’s voice, rather than letting us do the work ourselves, is putting his own thoughts like a stamp on the work.

Secondly, it also does that thing of having the historical figures interact with the camera and the audience, which – like a lot of Peter Watkins‘ work – I’ve never got on with. I’ve always found it a bit patronising. “Look! It’s a construct!” To which the only answer is; “I know!”

Would I watch it again, though? Yes. As stated at the beginning, it is exhaustive. It crams a lot into 88 minutes and no doubt repeat viewings will yield more. Not only that, it’s fittingly beautiful to look at and reminded me that I must go to museums more often.

*Jesus! I dunno about you but that trailer puts me right off seeing the film.

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