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Review: Francofonia

For all its congratulatory spirit, the film has the persistent feeling of an elegy bidding adieu to a bygone time.

3.0

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Francofonia
Photo: Music Box Films

While the Louvre may pull in more visitors than any museum in the world, its capacious, curlicued galleries are noticeably underpopulated in Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov’s exuberant paean to the fabled arts mecca. A fabulist at heart, Sokurov has never been one to champion naturalism at the expense of his more poetic urges, so it’s not surprising to see him steer clear of capturing the shutter-happiness of the museum’s sightseers, the sort of activity rife with the sociological vitality that would pique the interest of, say, Frederick Wiseman. As in Sokurov’s Russian Ark, in which the labyrinthine hallways of the Hermitage Museum were transformed into a sort of runway for nearly 300 years of Russian history, Francofonia treats the Louvre as a complicated, all-encompassing metaphor for (European) civilization itself. “What is France without the Louvre?” Sokurov poses via voiceover, and in his customarily grave lilting cadence. “Who would we be without museums?”

These are broad questions that Sokurov pursues through eloquent riffs, though the film has a tendency to ramble. References to deathbed portraits of Tolstoy and Chekov, while no doubt dear to Sokurov, seem more like unnecessary digressions. Francofonia is most convincing when the filmmaker crystallizes his arguments through quixotic images that skirt the line between fact and fiction. When the attention turns toward the Louvre’s crown jewel, the Mona Lisa, the only visitors who get to dote on the painting are two incarnations of French nationalism. The short man with the coattails is, of course, Napoleon Bonaparte (Vincent Nemeth), who, on seeing his own magnificence mirrored in the Mona Lisa’s smile, calls out repeatedly with smug glee, “C’est moi!” And the woman by his side is that great symbol of the French Republic, Marianne (Johanna Altes), who responds to the general’s ego by steadfastly whispering her nation’s famous slogan: “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Despite the improbable theatrics of these two characters, the scene is convincing for its sharp, and no less humorous, take on the perpetual battle between bureaucratic power and the will of the people.

Francofonia zeroes in on this conflictive dynamic by examining the Louvre’s tenuous status during World War II, just after Hitler waltzed into Paris and General Philippe Pétain fled south to Vichy, where he became prime minister. These scenes, shot with the patina of old, deteriorating film stock, feature a fictionalized reenactment of the relationship between the Louvre’s one-time director, Jacques Jaujard (Louis-do de Lencquesaing), and the aristocratic Nazi officer and art historian Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath). Sokurov expresses his admiration for Jaujard, a prototypical Frenchman who, unlike Pétain, does not embrace retreat, refusing to leave his position at the Louvre and finding an improbable ally in Metternich.

Together, the men ensure that the Louvre’s most treasured works aren’t looted by the Nazis, stashing them away in suburban chateaus. Jaujard and Metternich’s collaboration represents a kind of heroic subterfuge, living proof that belief in art can overcome ideological differences. State power, Sokurov shrewdly notes, dangerously coincides with a desire for presentation (archival footage of Hitler patrolling Paris and Napoleon’s remark that he “went to war for art” buttress this belief). But if art is inevitably an area of national interest and underwritten by the powers that be, it doesn’t mean that bureaucracy always wins out. Jaujard and Metterninch’s efforts prove this, if for just one brief moment in history. At the very least, their selflessness suggests that the Louvre’s importance far exceeds its position as simply a physical repository for works of the past. It also has a stake in the future.

There’s no shortage of impressive, freewheeling aerial shots and 360-degree pans of the Paris skyline throughout Francofonia, sweeping images that complement Sokurov’s overarching themes. As its title might suggest, Francofonia is, at times, unabashed in its scattered portrayal of Gallic cultural contributions. But the entire film isn’t all lovey-dovey. Like much of Sokurov’s work, it’s attenuated by an inherent sense of disquiet.

If the filmmaker’s humanist plea strikes some as archaic in a postmodern Europe beset by immigration problems and terrorist bombings, it’s a point that Sokurov seems to acknowledge when he appears in his home at the beginning of the film. Hunched over his Mac, engaged in a spotty webcam conversation, he tries unsuccessfully to reach out to Dirk, a captain of a sinking cargo ship supposedly carrying valuable artworks. Throughout the film, Sokurov will occasionally interrupt the flow of his commentary to get Dirk’s latest update, until, by film’s end, a torrent of waves are shown to overtake the hull of the ship. Artworks lost at sea? By no means a difficult metaphor to unpack, the insinuation here is one of grim uncertainty about the prospect of a unified European culture today. Indeed, for all its congratulatory spirit, Francofonia has the persistent feeling of an elegy bidding adieu to a bygone time, when art and civilization were perhaps more closely intertwined and could similarly be thought of on more continuous terms.

Cast: Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Benjamin Utzerath, Vincent Nemeth, Johanna Korthals Altes, Aleksandr Sokurov Director: Aleksandr Sokurov Screenwriter: Aleksandr Sokurov Distributor: Music Box Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2015 Buy: Video

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.

On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)

Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.

As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: The Favourite

Should Win: First Reformed

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.

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20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: A Star Is Born

Should Win: First Man

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