Walking into the Film Forum to see Aleksandr Sokurov’s newest docudrama, Francofonia, I was hoping to see something in the style or at least similar to his 2002 classic Russian Ark, a movie that in one incredible shot narrated the evolution of Russian culture through the ages while inside the Hermitage, itself a spaceship trapped in its own time out of time. Perhaps I needed to be aware that art directors tend to produce oeuvres of wildly different nature. Had that been the case I perhaps would have been more persuaded to enjoy Francofonia more.
With its introduction of Tolstoy and Chekov, Sokurov narrates Francofonia as a guide and an omniscient character. He is the cameraman slowly zooming in and out of Parisian streets, over the Louvre, inside the Louvre, showing us the Great Masterpieces of art, describing some of their history and how they and the Louvre are inexorably tied together into a massive artistic heritage. Flittering in and out of the frames are two figures, the symbolic Marianne from the liberation of France, her only line being “Liberte! Egalite! Fraternite!” while on the other hand, someone a little less selfless wanders the museum and points out only the works that feature him. That figure is none other than Napoleon, a ghost of his former self, still believing his greatness as something present, proclaiming, “C’est moi!” as a mantra.
Two other narratives also come into play and tie into the greater picture that Francofonia attempts to present here — that of the preservation of art as a document of a culture (and there will be a subtle tie to the recent events in Syria, where its own works of art were destroyed by ISIS militants. The first narrative presents two men from two sides of World War II — Jean Jaujard and Fritz Mettenreich — who attempted to secure France’s artistic heritage before they could be forever pilfered by the Nazi’s as they threatened to advance into France. Lastly, there is Sokurov again, chatting with someone on Skype who seems to be with some cargo at sea in the middle of a storm. I’m going to make an educated guess that this is Sokurov’s symbolic way of narrating what would be the act of artistic theft and its consequences, but the sequence somehow feels as though it belongs in another picture and not this one. And of course, I would kill to see one made of both Jaujard and Mettenreich as they went through hoops to protect these timeless works of art.
In short, Francofonia is a strange documentary of sorts — not quite drama, not quite a recreation, not quite a history lesson, but rich with imagery if it still tends to feel somewhat flat around the edges. As a lesson on preserving culture from forces that would very much destroy it to finance their means, this is an important film to watch.