Francofonia is the great Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov’s heroically ambitious meditation on European culture and history as seen through the story of the Louvre museum in Paris, with a particular focus on its fortunes during World War II. Neither a straight documentary nor a standard work of fiction, the film achieves an essayistic density by moving between several narrative strands: there is Sokurov himself, talking via Skype with a cargo ship captain carrying part of the Louvre’s holdings through a deadly storm; France’s national symbol Marianne roaming the museum’s collections with Napoleon Bonaparte; and the true story of the friendship between the Louvre’s wartime French curator and the Nazis’ head of artistic preservation (or, perhaps more accurately, appropriation). In what may be the film’s most affecting sequence, Sokurov turns closer to home and compares the Louvre’s relatively benign wartime fate with that of the Hermitage Museum in besieged Leningrad. Sokurov’s voiceover directly addresses the characters in archival images and present-day footage shot in his distinctive palette of gold and beige, his ruminations aiming for nothing less than a history of the relationship between art and power in twentieth-century Europe. This exploration of savagery and civilization as seen through the treatment of artistic treasures proves once more that Sokurov is not only one of the most idiosyncratic artists of our age but one of its most passionate, a living witness to the fading dream of a Europe defined by its artistic grandeur.
Louis-Do de Lencquesaing