It’s a curious thing, going to a movie with my friend Liza. We have a long tradition of seeing movies together, and when we were young, we went regularly every Friday night. We have to decide what to see, which can be a bit of a negotiation. Sometimes she wants to see things I am less interested in, and vice versa. This time, I thought, oh no, this is sort of a pretentious movie, but I understand why she would want to see it. When Liza goes to Paris, she spends plenty of time in the Louvre. The Louvre is one of the producers of the movie. They participated in its production completely. I had always been told to see Russian Ark, another movie by Sokurov, but I am less than thrilled about non-narrative movies, being an old fashioned person with a traditional aesthetic.
Is it ironic that I think I came away liking this movie more than Liza did?
Francofonia wobbles at the start. Credits, usually found at the end, appear on the left in a split screen with the right side given up to images of a ship carrying cargo on stormy seas with the director of the film speaking to the captain of the ship. It is hard to tell if this is a metaphor or if we are meant to fear for some actual works of art about to be lost at sea.
Images of Tolstoy and Chekhov appear on their deathbeds. Both men haunt the director as he puzzles over how to consider the twentieth century, its horrible record of world wars and extreme carnage.
Then we switch to 1940. Germany invades France. Marshal Petain moves the government to Vichy, allowing Germans to occupy Paris. Preservation of paintings and cultural treasure is supervised closely by both the director of the Louvre, Jacques Jaujard, and German administrator Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich, the German arts administrator. As a result, a relationship develops between them. Both men are dedicated to their tasks. By the time the Germans had arrived in France, most of the contents of the Louvre had been moved to chateaus in remote regions for safekeeping.
Sokurov concentrates on the meaning of art in the face of the destruction of everything through acts of war. He also wonders what art means in the broader sense, that is, does it define or approximate us as human beings.We consider certain places sacrosanct, like the Hermitage and the Louvre. As a New Yorker, I couldn’t help shouting out to myself: what about the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Sokurov is not just referring to places where art is collected but the works themselves.
For example, he asks, as a European, what would it mean if we could not look at portraits of faces that have been made since the 15th century? Does it help us determine who we really are, to gaze at those faces from long ago, that were painted in such painstaking detail, so that we almost felt as if we knew them? I certainly have felt this way, that my notion of what it is to be human stems partly from looking at these gorgeously rendered portraits where you can almost read the thoughts behind the heavy eyelids.
The reveries Sokoruv takes us through with works of art are always worth the time. The repetitive images of Marianne, the mythical heroine of the French Revolution played by an attractive Johanna Korthals Altes, however, less so. The more she keeps saying those three words that mean so much to the late 18th century revolutionaries: “liberte egalite fraternity,” somehow the less we take it seriously. Another problem I had with the movie is the preponderance of words requiring translation (I don’t speak Russian) that appear in subtitles just at the moment of the most beautiful or arresting images. Sometimes I had to decide what to look at — the words, or the pictures, and most often I chose the pictures. Sokurov is too wordy about that blasted ship, since the contents seem to be metaphorical.
Napoleon, played by Vincent Nemeth, on the other hand is a bit of a treat. He knows he is an egomaniac, and so keeps saying things like “It’s me!” (C’est moi!) I don’t know why this should not pall while the whimsical use of Marianne does.
Most poignant is the treatment of the Siege of Leningrad where so many millions died, and yet are still unheralded for their courageous sacrifice.
Equally effective is the relationship of the curator of all Europe and the director of the Louvre, especially at the very end of the movie when the point seems to be that human beings not only make glorious works of art which need to be preserved at all costs, but also need to be taken seriously as human beings themselves, and not allowed to decay in a forgotten graveyard.
The opening and closing moments of Francofonia are visually extreme: At the end, the audience is forced to look at nothing but red fuzz, then blue, then black. Since the production credits came at the beginning, we are left with our own thoughts, and I could not help but think of ISIS and the deliberate destruction of the ancient art at Timbuktu. The question remains: what does art mean to humans, we creatures capable of endless destruction, and yet, also, of perfect glory?