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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★★★★ review by Leo (Willem) van der Zanden 🔥⬇🏠 on Letterboxd
An absolutely gorgeous essay on art during wartime. The playful nature Sokurov infuses in this otherwise highly didactic piece of cinema is an absolute delight. Different time periods flow into each other like ones mind does while walking through a museum, drifting from one piece of art to the next. Time is both of the utmost importance in Sokurov's work and the last thing he seems to care about. What he wants is to show and tell about an absolute passion of his and he does so with the delicate touch of a master painter himself, dissecting the smallest little tidbits to recount this aptly named elegy for Europe. It's one, big, overarching story, almost as grand and epic as Sokurov's masterpiece Russian Ark, layered on top of itself, a book of short stories weaved together into a beautiful whole. This is cinema. This is just cinema to its fullest potential. Sokurov's filmography is something else, something completely out of this world and at the same time deeply ingrained in its very core.
And the very best part may be that it is almost impossible to explain and thus spoil, so everyone who reads this will have to find out for their damn selves how mightily beautiful this is.
★★★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.
★★★½ review by Jaime Grijalba on Letterboxd
Let's open every door in the building and let every idea in, but let's not close any door and let's not ever talk again about the doors. What doors? Did they matter? Interesting in long stretches, but I fail to understand what is the reasoning behind all of this. Particularly interesting when he apparently seems to intersect war and museums, their need and seemingly symbiotic existence. The rest of the time, it's mostly a show-off between the things that Sokurov likes and the playful style he has exercised throughout the years.
★★★★ 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.
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