“Why is art unable to teach us prescience?”
In a sort of “This Is Your Life” for Paris, France’s Louvre, Aleksandr Sokurov‘s Francofonia exposes a history of artistic heroes you may not expect. The journey takes us through archival footage; re-enactments shown in a faux raw state with clapboards against post-produced visual artifacting; in-close, high-definition details of the paintings and sculptures still residing within the museum’s walls; and present-day process work led by the director (who doubles as narrator) opposite a ship captain named “Dirk” struggling against heavy waves to preserve a shipment of art. But rather than simply walking the halls or experiencing a timeline-based trajectory from construction until today, Sokurov centers everything around World War II and the establishment’s inexplicable survival against the Nazi war machine.
To do this is to introduce the men responsible for preventing so much great art from being shipped off to Germany: Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamn Utzerath). The former was one of the few civil servants not to flee Paris upon occupation, the director of the Louvre and therefore the keeper of every off-site location housing the artwork removed in anticipation of bombings. The latter was a Nazi officer held as conservationist of Europe’s art—the leader of the Kunstschutz tasked with preserving and repairing the continent’s heritage so the Führer could call it his own. They cultivated a kinship around the work and postponed transport for as long as possible until liberation once more allowed the Louvre to shine.
But while the film’s marketing is keen to make it appear they will be the stars, they’re merely one piece to the puzzle Sokurov has constructed. With them are vintage silent home movies taken by citizens on the empty streets of occupied Paris, paintings depicting the massive collection that once graced the walls of the museum, and ghost-like tour guides in Marianne (Johanna Korthals Altes) and Napoléon Bonaparte (Vincent Nemeth) who credits himself as the orchestrator of the Louvre’s greatness thanks to his many wars and conquests. The director speaks above the imagery with the history he has researched, going back and forth in time according to each new insight proving relevant to the tale he’s crafted. It’s daunting, informative, and surprisingly breezy.
I’m still not sure what the conversations between Sokurov and “Dirk” mean in the context of the whole. Just another representation of the countless masterworks and seamen lost during transport from exotic lands? Maybe. I honestly started ignoring those brief interludes because the rest is what intrigued. I loved seeing the breadth of work and the scale of canvases juxtaposed opposite Napoléon and Marianne walking by. The way Sokurov cuts between aged film and brand new footage filtered to appear aged is nice and the retention of spool holes and smaller frames proves a welcomingly warm aesthetic touch. It’s as though he is putting on a lecture for us, a private glimpse into the past to educate just how important art and culture is to humanity.
To him the Louvre is quite literally Paris itself. Seeing the faces of ancestors and witnessing the collection as a demonstration of the empire’s reach and success abroad becomes a history lesson all its own. Sokurov takes us into the museum, explains the architecture, teases the more modern expansions, and compares it to St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum—the location that served as the subject of his famously iconic one-shot Russian Ark. He puts art into context, explaining why we hold onto it so steadfastly as an extension of ourselves. Without museums we are nothing but who we are right now. Without a glimpse into the past we may never learn from our mistakes. And somehow Paris was saved when many others weren’t.
Francofonia therefore serves as a beautiful look at a beautiful epicenter of mankind. Its tangents sometimes go to or arrive from nowhere, the focus on Jaujard and Wolff can seem unimportant until more than halfway through, and we don’t get to see that much of the Louvre’s actual collection, but these are intentional choices on Sokurov’s behalf. He has a thesis and he advances tirelessly towards that goal. You definitely need to be a major WWII buff to care about a story that doesn’t involve the frontlines or an art historian to respect the importance of the Louvre’s survival. There are political underpinnings, a palpable emotional resonance, and an affection for the arts that sadly seems to be waning of late.
If anything Sokurov documents the Louvre’s story to remind us about what we’re destroying by constantly under-funding artistic endeavors and forgetting our past. It’s not about the gallery or the Nazi who preserved it. It’s about museums in general and what they stand for within our cultural heritage. They preserve our beauty and our rage—each artifact a glimpse at the culture that created it and the culture that took it. This kind of esoteric purpose will bore some, but we should applaud it nonetheless for documenting its truth in case a new war risks destroying everything again. The film possesses a niche scope, but those within its target demographic will find a lot to love even if it proves more conversation starter than self-contained recitation.
courtesy of Music Box Films