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"Francofonia" (2015 release from France; 90 min.) is a non-fiction
movie loosely about the Louvre museum in Paris. As the movie opens, we
hear a certain Alexander (that would be the movie's Russian director
Alexander Sokurov) in conversation with a certain Dirk, who is on an
ocean liner with art in one of its containers. It's not long before
Sokurov directs his attention to June 14, 1940, when German troops
overtook Paris, including archive footage of Hitler inspecting the
Eiffel Tower and muttering "Where is the Louvre?" Eventually, we are
introduced to Jacques Jaujard, the Louvre's museum director at that
time, and Count Metternich, entrusted by Hitler to supervise the
Louvre's art collection for the Nazis. At this point we're not quite 15
min. into the movie, but to tell you more would spoil your viewing
experience. You'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest oeuvre from writer-director Aleander Sokurov, best know for "Russian Ark" (about the Hermitage in St. Petersburg). In fact it can be said that "Francofonia" is a spiritual sequel to that movie. Going in, I knew that "Francofonia" was about the Louvre, but didn't know more than that. And while it is true that the movie's primary subject matter is the Louvre, it is in equal measure about the WWII occupation of Paris by the Germans, and a bunch of other things as well ("why are portraits so important in European culture, whereas they are non-existent in the Muslim culture?", asks Sokurov). Even while it's not always clear what the ultimate aim or direction of the movie is, that's not a problem for me. The only jarring thing for me was the occasional and unnecessary appearance of actors impersonating Napoleon (whom we see staring at the Mona Lisa, while repeating "C'est moi!") and France. And oh yea, we do get to see a bunch of paintings and other works of art from the Louvre. In the end, I was surprised how quickly the 90 min. had flown by, so while this movie is rather strange, it certainly is intriguing and held my attention.
This movie made quite a splash at the 2015 Venice Film Festival. "Francofonia" opened without any pre-release fanfare or advertising at my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati a week ago, and the Thursday early evening screening where I saw this at was one of its last, as the movie was gone the next day. I was frankly surprised how many people there were (about 10), but maybe they had the same thought as I did (better see this before it's gone!). If you are in the mood for a deeply subjective non-fiction film (but don't call it a documentary) about the Louvre, I'd readily suggest you check this out.
Director Sokurov eschews the usual form for this type of film, which
would be documentary, in favor of a sort of historical drama. It
switches back and forth from the present era to WWII to the 18th
century. It is an attempt to explain the history of The Louvre by
integrating several different phases in its existence; The acquisition
of much of the artwork by Napoleon in his conquests, transporting it
out of harms way before the Nazi occupation, and a contemporary recap
of the logistics and hazards involved in each phase.
Can I be frank? I found the whole exercise somewhat confusing. I would get the gist of a particular scenario, only to have the director switch gears and move to another era and another circumstance, and having to readjust my focus and concentration on this new problem (where are we now?, I kept asking myself). I enjoyed glimpses of the Great Hall, the Mona Lisa and several other treasures that go to make The Louvre the epicenter of western culture. All I was asking was a little clarity.
Maybe he just could have made it a documentary.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
this is not really a movie, nor a documentary or any other kind of description I can think of. if you are a history buff, that would be helpful. the story is the louvre and its art and what happened to both when Hitler invaded in ww II. we follow the administrator of the museum and the Nazi art maven sent to Paris to look after the louvre. some would know the history of what happened, but even so, there is a story to be told and a lot to learn. there is a cameo by a person very important to the formation of the museum and its significant art collection. sokurov is a wonderful director and has a flair for telling stories. if you like grown up experiences go and have fun. I did.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Francofonia is an intriguing compendium piece to Sokurov's breakthrough
film Russian Ark, though it lacks the stylistic punch of that
particular film. Of course, doing another 100-minute one-take shot
would have felt repetitive, as if the director attempted to capitalize
on his own past glory. So there's none of that in Francofonia, but
that's not to stop Sokurov from pulling a few more cinematographic
tricks out of his hat. That, and the overall message, matters more to
him than following conventional narrative expectations. Which is made
clear a bit painfully, as Francofonia is literally all over the Louvre,
rather than sticking to the single time frame that one would have
expected to be the primary focus. Even though the museum's survival of
the war years during WW II appears to be the subject at hand, Sokurov
has a lot more to tell about the place's long history, not to mention
sharing his personal thoughts on both the Louvre's background, its
place in art history and the treatment of art in general. That's a lot
to tackle for a 90-minute movie...
And of course, as a result, not every episode of the Louvre's story proves as interesting. In fact, all of the film suffers from Sokurovs tendency to change subjects, drone on about the abuse and capitalization of art works and sudden jumps to different time periods. Nevertheless, the message remains clear: museums should not be reduced to pawns of commerce, politics or dictators. They are time capsules that tell all of human history and should be carefully preserved, kept well away from the power hungry. The German occupation is just an example of and an homage to a period in history where the joining of forces between two like minded men, who by all accounts ought to be diametrically opposed, preserved countless artifacts for posterity. Sokurov thanks both men for their assistance to cultural history. But he also isn't afraid to remind us that the origin of the Louvre itself is steeped in conquest and theft. After all, the emperor Napoleon captured many pieces of art on his campaigns abroad and had them shipped to the capital of his empire. Hitler simply attempted to do the same and failed in the Louvre's case, while succeeding in a lot of other cases. Art and politics certainly aren't mutually exclusive.
It's a point Sokurovs makes with the help of various stylistic choices, some proved in prior works, others applied for the first time in his case. Though there are no excessively long takes used as there were in Russian Ark, his introduction of historical characters sharing their insights and motivations with us is taken straight from that film. In this case restricted to only two characters (Marianne, the French Spirit of Freedom and Napoleon), rather than many. This is not a coincidence of course, as Francofonia's main tale also deals with two characters, the museum director (representing the side of French freedom) and the Nazi officer (the conquering party, the Napoleonic figure). Their story is intercut with historical footage, while it is itself disguised as historical footage by its old fashioned framing and the many print scratches applied. It would have worked even better if it was in black and white, but apparently Sokurov disagreed. He disagrees with a lot of things in Francofonia. Like art being shipped over seas as any other piece of cargo in containers on large freighters, its very existence threatened by a violent storm. Why does art suffer so much indignity and indifference today, he laments. No matter how fragmented his thoughts as shown in Francofonia, it's hard to disagree with him, when ancient buildings and statues are demolished left and right by zealous barbarians, who are also eager to simply sell such cultural heritage to the highest bidder to fund their cause. World War II may have ended seventy years ago, but art remains ever in danger at the hands of subversive ideologies. Francofonia serves as an cautionary reminder of what could be scrapped from the history pages forever if we are not careful and respectful of art's place in our cultural mind.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is an odd film strangely constructed. It's on the avant-garde
side, and poetic. It's definitely not a touristy look at the Louvre.
The focus (and this film is sometimes out of focus) is on the Louvre during the German occupation of Paris in the war years. There are fictitious historical re-enactments of the key French and German figures who were involved with the Louvre and this works. They are long forgotten and the film-makers gives' them a new lease on life. The Napoleon figure was entertaining too!
There are mysterious side-bars that crop up in this film. I could not for the life of me understand the interruptions showing a container ship caught in a North Atlantic storm. The conversations were with a man named Dirk speaking in English and with the director speaking in Russian.
Of interest for museum aficionados and those interested in 20th century French history.
This is the last Aleksandr Sokurov movie I'll ever see. I'm sure this
guy means well, but his cinematic instinct isn't very entertaining,
even though someone with money clearly thinks otherwise.
I recently visited the Louvre. It is far more impressive than you would think seeing this movie which attempts to avoid responsibility for showing it to you by purporting to be an brief account of it during the German occupation. It fails even at that rather small ambition.
There are a few flashes of adequacy but they're so few and far between that it's not worth sitting through it all. Watching this was a big waste of time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Having seen and loved Sokurov's earlier film "Russian Ark", I found
"Francofonia" a disappointment.
While "Russian Ark" also switches its scenes from one historical period to another, in that film it all came together into a coherent whole through its setting inside the Hermitage, as well as by its groundbreaking single take. "Russian Ark" was an astonishing cinematic tour de force. In comparison, "Francofonia" is just an incoherent jumble of unrelated thoughts.
The theme that gets the most attention in "Francofonia" is the period of the German occupation of Paris in WW2, when the Louvre's collection was evacuated and stored in various chateaux and other locations throughout France as a precaution against the chance that Paris would be bombed later in the war. Interspersed with this is a series of vignettes on mostly unrelated subjects. We see the emperor Napoleon telling the viewer how the best of the Louvre's art collection was brought to France by him as spoils of war; footage of Hitler being escorted around Paris to admire the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elysées and other monuments; scenes from the siege of Leningrad; a bit on the policies of Marechal Pétain, leader of the collaborationist Vichy government; a history of the Louvre building since its beginnings as a fortress in the middle ages; and a lament about the risks of transporting art treasures in ships over the high seas. Throughout the film we hear the voice of the narrator, speaking in Russian.
It all comes across as a dose of revisionist history, where the underlying message seems to be: "The French were smart and did themselves a great favor by going along with the German occupation during the war, as witnessed by the fact that the Germans kept their hands off the Louvre's collection so that it survived the war intact. The Nazis were very cruel to us Russians, but on the whole they were not so bad." I didn't buy it.
I am sorry to say: what a chore. Who is Sokurov and how does he get any producer to give him money to produce such drudgery? The man had already lost track (and sight) of his audience when he inflicted on it his overly long and deliberately confusing "Russian Ark", whose only redeeming value was its one terrific camera trick. Russian Ark, as a historical documentary, had no substance, no coherence, and displayed both huge gaps and bias. Alas, here is our mad Russian director at the task again , examining this time the Louvre museum, and extemporaneously droning on well, what exactly is his topic? A mishmash of disconnected anecdotes, vague philosophical remarks, ridiculous or pompous -and mostly reactionary- statements on art and history. And, as he did in Russian Ark, he reprises his lethal habit of using as our "guide" an annoying character about whom we know nothing and care little about. In Russian Ark, it was an exasperating curmudgeon who literally whined about everything from room to room; Here, it is apparently Sokurov himself, seen only in silhouette as the narrator, speaking via Skype to a mysterious ship captain named Dirk, or via camera to count Wolff Metternich, or more often than not, to himself indeed while preaching to his captive theater audience. For every one good idea, 10 bad ones kick it off the screen. In the 1950s in France, was a filmmaker/playwright/actor and bon vivant named Sacha Guitry who produced, directed and acted in many self aggrandizing movies about France history ("Si Versailles m'était Conté"is the most famous), but while picking and choosing his anecdotes as director and acting in them as the narrator - like Sokurov- Guitry was always witty, fast and light on his feet: he never lost track of his audience's needs and pleasure. History was his pretext, entertainment his goal. Mr Sokurov is no Sacha Guitry. I venture to say that, between the mysterious Captain Dirk recurrently moping on his ship, "Marianne" trolling around the Louvre with her ecstatic and repeated utterance of "Liberty, Egalité, Fraternité", and Napoleon himself running around the Louvre like a petulent child bragging "it is me!", one can actually question the sanity of the director responsible for a script as sophomoric as this. I saw the film in a Berkeley theater: the movie went on for what seemed like 4 hours -when it is only 90 minutes. Those were 90 minutes I never wish to waste again.
Sometimes what we've seen before is enough. Director/ Writer Aleksandr Sokurov, who did so well with 'The Russian Ark,' a seamless, one-long- take tour of the Hermitage, does fails heavily with the Louvre. The computerized opening is mere gadgetry; a sour Napoleon brags about the art he stole for the Louvre; Marianne, the personification of France, appears serially, glumly droning Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité rather too often. Earlier Mariannes (e.g. Bardot, Deneuve, Casta) were at least lookers. Too much time is spent on stuff long-since covered by 'Monuments Men' and at least one TV documentary on the Nazi occupation and art looting. As nothing new is added, 'bored stiff' will have a literal meaning unless your theater has really good seats.
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