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.