Directed by Alexander Sokurov
Opens April 1
The museum as we know it is largely a 19th-century creation. An institution inherited from a colonial system obsessed with hierarchies and borders, it poses a quandary in a time when neither borders nor hierarchies are in vogue. But Russian director Alexander Sokurov, whose 2002 Russian Ark was shot in one continuous 96-minute take in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, isn’t concerned with how museums should work. Taking for granted the museum-as-warehouse, Sokurov is concerned with why we need them to work at all; why our reverence for, say, the Louvre, is often greater than our reverence for our own lives, or the lives of others.
Francofonia is an essay film, maybe a lyric essay film: ambitious and personal, concise and complex, insightful and at times limited by ponderousness. Sokurov’s old-fashioned faith in cultural stalwarts can read not just as conservative, but naïve. The film opens with deathbed photographs of Tolstoy and Chekhov, whose input Sokurov’s steady voiceover requests; it’s difficult to imagine an American filmmaker starting a similar project by prodding dead Whitman.
But this naïvete prompts questions the more world-weary might scorn to ask, and Francofonia‘s scope broadens. Napoleon’s shade and a (rather goofy) Marianne, of the Delacroix painting, haunt the galleries; alongside the erroneous claim that portraiture is unique to Western art, Sokurov introduces two real historical figures responsible for keeping the Louvre’s collections safe throughout World War II, while so many museums (including the Hermitage) were being bombed or looted.
In fictionalized scenes, French official Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and occupying German Count Franziskus Wolff Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath) collaborate, uneasily but effectively. This old-styled footage is intercut with archival shots of Hitler eyeing the Eifel tower, Skype sessions with an allegorical sea captain, and lovely close-ups of what dwells now inside the Louvre: Assyrian reliefs and French oils, Renaissance marble and real, living visitors. It’s possible that the reason we locate such value in these works is that they promise us divinity. Each one is a testament to the idea that in some aspect, we can and do exist outside our fragile bodies and contested borders; a museum is democratic in making that promise to anyone who enters and is willing to see. Happily, so is a movie theater.