‘Francofonia’: Venice Review

FRANCOFONIA Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival

FRANCOFONIA Still - H 2015

Caviar for uptown audiences.

Russian auteur Aleksander Sokurov tells the story of the Louvre under German occupation.

One of European cinema’s true cultural giants, Russian auteur Aleksander Sokurov may be the only director alive who can pack festival audiences in to watch a film about a museum. After Russian Ark, his 2002 tour-de-force set in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, it’s the Louvre’s turn to be put under his whimsically intelligent  historical magnifying glass. The subject of Francofonia is art as the spoils of war, and the example he gives is the period when the Louvre – called at one point “the capital of the world” – came under Nazi control. Making the barest hint about the destruction of historic artworks in Syria at the hands of ISIS, Sokurov gently reminds the viewer why all this is terribly relevant today.

Given that the director won the Golden Lion in Venice in 2011 for his last opus, Faust, it's doubtful whether he will wear the same crown again so soon, but could be – it’s the kind of film that forces admiration. However, its main audience will remain the happy few who have always supported high art filmmaking, while others may find it merely pretentious. It has already sold briskly around Europe.

A sense of impending doom hangs over the city of Paris as, in the summer of 1940, the government surrenders and the German army marches in. Period newsreels show Hitler inspecting the Eiffel Tower and the Champs Elysees, and looking for the Louvre. It is the treasure trove that the Nazi fine art collectors have their eye on. One imagines the plundering that is about to take place—were it not for three things.

The first is M. Jacques Jaujard, the museum director, a forgotten hero who is the subject of the recent French TV documentary Illustrious Yet Unknown. Unlike the vast majority of civil servants, he refuses to abandon his post and flee when the Germans arrive. The second is Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich, the officer entrusted by Hitler to supervise France’s art collection for the Nazis. He arrives at the Louvre  to find it emptied of all its most important works. Jaujard has had them transferred to aristocratic chateaux around the country to save them from possible bombing in Paris – exactly as Metternich has transferred valuables out of German museums for analogous reasons. And in Paris, the aristo officer does his best to keep French art out of the hands of Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and friends. So despite the obvious animosity of Jaujard (played with delicate tact by Louis Do de Lencquesaing), he and Metternich (a gentlemanly Benjamin Utzerath) are bound by their common ideals and passion for art.

The third factor is more intangible and is embodied by ghosts haunting the Louvre, who range from the self-centered Napoleon (“C’est moi!” actor Vincent Nemeth cries gleefully every time he catches sight of his portrait) to the mythical Marianne, the symbol of France, who monotonously repeats “Freedom. Equality. Brotherhood” every time she makes her irritating appearance. Chalk them both up to Russian humor that fails to travel. But there is clearly a spirit of cultural resistance stronger than the tempests of history.

The role of art in bolstering power becomes more involving as the film goes on. If the odd word 'Francofonia' has any meaning, it is to affirm the French idea that culture is the supreme value buoying up a nation. As Napoleon is fond of boasting, he waged war for the express purpose of looting artworks and bringing them back home. To the victor belong the museums.

Shooting inside the Louvre with seemingly unlimited access to the after-hours collection (the museum is an associate producer on the French-German-Dutch coprod), Sokurov parades masterpiece after masterpiece in front of the camera, from the 9,000-year-old statue of a man to the Mona Lisa and the Winged Victory. When he visits the hall featuring sculpture and friezes from Assyria, the idea that preserving art is preserving civilization comes into sharp focus. Wisely, he doesn’t linger or press the point because no more is needed.

Unlike a straight documentary, the film roams freely, sometimes with a bit of self-indulgence, over other fictional scenarios. One recurring scene has the director sitting in his studio trying to talk to his friend Capt. Dirk on some kind of video connection that keeps blacking out. The good captain is in dire straits aboard his cargo ship, stacked with containers filled with artworks. The enemy here is the force of the elements: a huge storm at sea threatens to sink the ship unless he jettisons the precious cargo. This links to the numerous art losses suffered through the centuries as kings and emperors shipped home their war trophies, which often ended up on bottom of the sea.

There is a lot of playfulness, too, even in unexpected places. The irony with which Sokurov looks at the Nazis taking over Paris puts their pact with the Vichy government into a long historical perspective. But if Paris was spared, he cannot joke about the catastrophic fate of his own country, and documentary scenes of the siege of Leningrad are truly heart-breaking. At the Hermitage, once again, the museum staff had the good sense to hide their masterpieces before it was too late.

Technical work is up to the usual high standards, with Bruno Delbonnel’s elegant cinematography doing a splendid job recreating the wartime atmosphere in Paris to complement, rather than match, copious archive footage. However, some of the technical tricks are tiresome, such as the utterly superfluous “soundtrack” ribbon that runs down one side of the frame in certain scenes, closing off the image.

This hymn to Europe and its multiple cultures uses Russian, French and German languages with a smattering of English thrown in.

Production companies: Ideale Audience, Zero One Film, N279 Entertainment in association with Arte France Cinema, Musee du Louvre

Cast: Louis Do de Lencquesaing Benjamin Utzerath, Vincent Nemeth, Johanna Korthals Altes, Jean-Claude Caer, Andrey Chelpanov
Director, screenwriter: Aleksander Sokurov
Producer: Pierre Olivier Bardet
Coproducers: Olivier Pere, Remi Burah
Line producers:
Claire Lion, Tassilo Aschauer, Ann Carolin Renninger, Marianne Van Hardeveld
Director of photography: Bruno Delbonnel
Music: Murat Kabardokov

Costumes: Colombe Lauriot Prevost
Editors: Alexei Jankowski, Hansjorg Weissbrich
Sales Agent: Films Boutique
87 minutes