Directed by Alexander Sokurov
Master filmmaker Alexander Sokurov (Russian Ark) transforms a portrait of the world-renowned museum into a magisterial, centuries-spanning reflection on the relation between art, culture and power.
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★★★½ review by Sean Gilman on Letterboxd
Bonaparte is the funniest thing in the film, naturally enough. He's vexed at the Prussians who appear to be in his museum (the Nazis from the recreation) and he loves standing by the great paintings and declaring "It's me" like a megalomaniacal twitter meme. A comprehensive look at the museum and its history is of course impossible, so Sokurov focuses on the areas that interest him most: a collection of Assyrian artifacts, a 9,000 year old sculpture of a human figure from the Jordanian desert, paintings of the museum itself, of people touring its galleries and observing its works, a myriad of human faces in portrait. This latter section inspires the film's most fascinating rumination, as he speculates about what he (incorrectly) deems a uniquely European obsession with portraiture, and whether our ability to see what people look like hundreds of years ago changes our view of ourselves.
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★★★½ review by Michael Sicinski on Letterboxd
[SPOILER: James Franco does not appear in this film.]
There was no reason to expect something playful from Sokurov, especially after his excruciating take on Faust (2011). But with Francofonia we find Russia’s melancholic master offering up an essay-film take on the Louvre that’s downright breezy. After setting up a contemporary framing story that has Sokurov in his office, Skyping and then losing contact with a ship’s captain named Dirk (don’t ask, doesn’t matter), the director starts waxing philosophical on Western culture and the role of museums in preserving it. While Francofonia has very little to offer on the subject that’s new, Sokurov is spry and chatty and keeps things continually engaging. With its first-person musings and associative image-track, Francofonia’s first half resembles nothing so much as a late Godard video, but the approach and mood is open and accessible even as the subject matter turns highbrow. The tone is miles from either Godard (e.g., Histoire(s) du cinéma) or Sokurov’s own languorous video work (e.g., Spiritual Voices). In its second half, Francofonia zeroes in on the German occupation of France.
As he did in the superficially similar Russian Ark (2002), Sokurov sometimes acts as an unseen interlocutor, speaking with the ghosts who haunt the Louvre, including a smug Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth) who affects an amusing Borscht-belt plotz upon discovering that the Prussians have taken over the asylum. But most of the remainder of the film is spent dramatizing the wartime cooperation between the Louvre’s Vichy-era chief, Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), and Nazi cultural attaché Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath). Coming from a figure such as Sokurov—whose anti-Soviet conservatism has so often led to political positions that are illegible, if not outright problematic, to his contemporaries (alliances with Putin, apparent anti-Semitism, patronizing views toward Chechens)—Francofonia might be seen as the clearest statement of position we’ll ever get: everyone is compromised, and you negotiate as best you can with the situation on the ground.
★★★★ review by Kamran Ahmed on Letterboxd
[REVIEW] Francofonia (Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia)
Edited in his poetic style, the film crosses between beatific images and a resonant soundtrack which is frustratingly undercut by his overly encyclopedic display of knowledge. While every scene feels spirited and authentic, even though depicting history, Sokurov’s signature poetry is undermined by his constant exposition. Though impassioned, the history lesson is much less interesting than the unquestionably brilliant cinematography besides it. For this reason, while underwhelming as a whole, Francofonia is merely lesser work by a masterful director; in other words, it is still great.
★★★★ review by Ludvig Gur on Letterboxd
If you love art, this film is for you. Aleksandr Sokurov's latest effort and (sort-of) sequel to Russian Ark focuses on my favorite museum in the world, the Louvre and the nazi occupation off of it. The story is told in an untraditional manner (as to be expected from Sokurov) and it is hard to follow at parts. However, it is still a powerful piece of filmmaking about how important art is for our existence.
★★★★★ review by Zach Cheney on Letterboxd
I can't do better than Charles Mudede on this, especially his point about the gut punch that is Sokurov's shift from Paris to Leningrad, from the Louvre to the Hermitage. Already the film has blurred easy distinctions between narrative and documentary, and disregarded any obligation to follow history in a linear fashion, à la Russian Ark. A favorite moment here is when Sokurov interviews Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich together, revealing their fates to them in the very midst of an otherwise eternal present.
Sokurov comes right out and relentlessly asks questions, then blasts you with montages of the most Eisensteinian variety. Francofonia's shearing of shots and strategic fusing of images paradoxically weds it with Russian Ark's long take (easily the greatest of the single-shot films) at a formal level just as Francofonia's content—outside the museum—contrasts with Russian Ark's insistence to remain within the museum. The juxtaposing edits act as powerful rejoinders acknowledging the massive scope of what Sokurov is tapping into: totalitarianism, history, art, nation, humanity, liberation, death, cruelty, vindication, culture, etc. Taglines for the film read as navel-gazing art-film pomposity, but this is weirdly accessible for anyone determined to wait it out. One also gets the impression that Sokurov subverted the interests of his investors to make a deeply important point ranging from the transcendental to the political, in so doing creating a piece of art worthy of the most prestigious museums of Europe.
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