FRANCOFONIA. Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Vincent Nemeth, Benjamin Utzerath, Johanna Korthals Altes, Alexander Sokourov. Directed by Alexander Sokurov. 85 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes).
Director Alexander Sokurov is perhaps best known for his stunning 2002 film ‘Russian Ark’, a historical drama shot in an unbroken 96 minute take through the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. For ‘Francofonia’, Sokurov turns his attention to the Louvre with his trademark blend of heavy narration and experimental narrative techniques, to disappointing results.
The plot, if we impose one on the film in the traditional sense, is primarily focused on the Louvre during the Second World War, where it came under the influence of two key figures: deputy Louvre director Jacques Jaujard (played in recreations by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), and the Nazi overseer of France’s art Count Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath). Through their combined efforts, not a single artwork was damaged throughout the entire Nazi occupation of France.
The film is stitched together from a disparate collage of archival and contemporary videos, with lofty, poetic musings from Sokurov about the value of art and museums as framing devices, including some Skype conversations with a container ship captain whose cargo is the contents of an unnamed museum. As the captain is struck by heavy seas and becomes at risk of losing containers overboard (the fear and sadness felt here are close to the only emotions the film inspires), the metaphor is clear – humanity’s culture floats aboard a leaky vessel, and only a select few appear to be doing anything to preserve it. Elsewhere, the Emperor Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth) and Marianne (Johanna Korthals Altes), a personification of France spouting ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ at every opportunity, weave their way through the Louvre at night.
The whole endeavour is so caught up in a tornado of Sokurov’s style and attempts at philosophical posturing that the end result just isn’t particularly engaging. It is, of course, an experimental arthouse film, inherently limiting its mainstream interest and exposure, but this doesn’t mean that it can’t be engaging and insightful. However, what is of interest here (primarily the story of Jaujard and Metternich) is lost amidst Sokurov’s insistence upon his unusual techniques of filmmaking. Where ‘Russian Ark’ was visually sweeping and narratively dense, ‘Francofonia’ is flat on both counts.
It ultimately plays out as a personal essay by Sokurov, the kind of film that perhaps he would enjoy watching himself. However, when put up to the scrutiny of wider audiences, it lacks enough of anything to recommend it. Only for Sokurov completionists.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 6.