“When it should feel direct, it instead feels abstract.”
by Ken Bakely
In the center of Paris, you will find the Louvre. It is there, as it has been for hundreds of years, a landmark of not only its city and country, but a statement about the endurance of culture within Europe, despite numerous wars and occupations and near-apocalyptic conflicts. Alexander Sokurov, the director who brought us the one-take art museum walkthrough that is Russian Ark, has fixed his sights on the Louvre for his new film Francofonia. The 85 minute movie unfolds through a number of formats – however, it is largely based around a personal kind of documentary.
Sokurov forms a loose narrative around the museum he is talking about, and discusses its place in history, especially during the era of France’s occupation at the hands of the Nazis during World War II, in which he interacts with two fictitious characters – a curator and a soldier, showing us their compact and time-sensitive interactions with the deft pull of puppet strings. The director still exercises his self-endowed right to practice his omnipresent voice-over, continuing his strategy for a project which is carried by a direct presence.
His mind drifts, his asides grow long at times. He pontificates on the stories of the lives and careers of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, longingly aims his camera at photos taken at the respective deathbeds of the writers, and gently asks them to wake up, time and time again. Francofonia is the kind of film which is largely absorbed in a period of simmering pontification. The question of whether it works, or if one finds it interesting, is an entirely different one.
I admire the ambition and the philosophical armaments which Sokurov carries in, but the script feels a bit unfocused, sliding around through whatever happens to be considered worthy of dedication at a particular moment. Grainy archival film stock, crisp digital video, blurry webcam footage – the intent to emulate a stream-of-consciousness, ad hoc production style is apparent. While that works within its own limitations, what does this mean for someone like me, who isn’t sold on either Sokurov’s pre-established style or the foundations of his approach in this specific instance?
A scene passes by here and there in which a woman portraying Marianne (Johanna Altes), a national symbol of France, will come through the frame, strolling or riding on the back of a golf cart, and utter the nation’s motto – “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” – several times. Sometimes she’ll even say it to an embodiment of Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth), who does not fully respond because he is too busy wandering through the Louvre’s corridors and proclaiming that each masterwork he sees is a direct reflection of himself and his own figure. Germs of these ideas, and many others, are key to Francofonia’s internal rhythms as a piece of art, but to comprehend where they fit in within the larger canvas is a bit of a Herculean task for those either unacquainted with Sokurov’s work, or harbor less-than-fanatical feelings towards it.
There is nothing new about the idea that art is an enduring concept, which can float above the changing seas of time and remain important. However, this does not mean that we should ever tire of hearing this sentiment repeated – in these uncertain days, perhaps it is something we should remember with special veracity. Yet Francofonia falls short of proving its necessity in this greater discussion. When it should feel collective, it instead feels self-centered. When it should feel direct, it instead feels abstract. Sokurov is a talented filmmaker, and an artist with an obvious desire to communicate a strong thesis, but I find myself unable to connect with his thickly constructed presentations. Too often, his languidly written narration feels like a suffocating cover over the proceedings, attempting to pour a smattering of vignettes into artificial molds. This theme of mismatching elements is chronic throughout the film, leaving a field of engaging concepts to examine, but delivered through regrettably mulled methods.