Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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Sokurov's talky, poetic meditation on the Louvre

Enigmatic, moody, and always a little - really more than a little - mad, Sokurov remains for me as I memorably heard the late Graham Leggett introduce him at a Lincoln Center screening of his The Sun: "unmistakably one of the world's great filmmakers." He is most known for, and leaped to wider western fame with, Russian Ark, his tour-de-force tour of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, a long dreamlike meander executed in a single unbroken shot. It ends its angry tunnel-vision ramble through Russian history by dramatically emerging into a grand ballroom where Valery Gergiev is conducting the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra playing Glinka. But Russian Ark (2002) - the first of Sokurov's films I'd seen though he'd made dozens before it - had seemed to me overrated, misunderstood, for most, just an awesome stunt lacking direct emotion. It was The Sun (NYFF 2005) that moved and captivated me, then Alexandra (NYFF 2007)], then I tried to catch up on some of his other works, such as Mother and Son (1997), Father and Son (2003; I'd actually seen it earlier). For real cult-ready crazy-brilliance, watch his Faust (2011). None of these others has been much seen in the US. The Sun didn't come to American theaters till 2009. But though not a stunt like Russian Ark, Francofonia, another kind of museum tour, focused on the Louvre, has a postcard appeal and shock value - it's got Hitler staring at the Eiffel Tower - and will have US distribution.

Framcofonia is vintage Sokurov, but it's different. It's not only about the Louvre and France. Given Sokurov's fascination with the sea it may not be surprising that this film is periodically interrupted by a difficult effort at Skype communication between the director and a ship captain called "Dirk" whose vessel carrying art treasures is threatened by a stormy sea - a contrast, obviously, to the safe haven for art represented by a great museum. Where Russian Ark was mysteriously silent, Francofonia is talky. It's Sokurov's lengthy meditation, in his own voice, about art in culture, museums, war, and France, especially France under the occupation. A corpulent phantom of Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth) wanders through Sokurov's Louvre, boasting of the spectacular trophies he's captured for the country, and occasionally encountering the traditional figurehead of France, Marianne (Johanna Korthals Altes), who chants "Liberté, égalité, fraternité!" Like Russian Ark, this is no mere documentary film. Even if, as he admits midway, Sokurov's ever-present speculative voiceover may eventually become a little hard to take, the film Is a mesmerizing mélange of fantasy, found footage, and dreamlike restagings of real or imagined incidents.

In Francofonia Sokurov isn't so interested in showing us the treasures of the Louvre - though relatively early on he glances at a series of faces in Louvre portraits, citing the importance of portraiture to European culture, and points to the large, magnificent Winged Victory of Samothrace (being carted away) - as he is concerned to imagine their absence. What would the world be without these treasures, and their architecturally magnificent repository? Paris, he announces, revealing himself to be a surprisingly unbridled francophile, is the cultural capital of the world, and museums (he doesn't say this exactly) the souls of nations. What if the treasures of the Louvre had been lost or stolen? He is more interested in the Second World War and the German occupation, when the bulk of the museum's vast contents, over 3,000 boxes, was packed up and hidden away in the countryside, in numerous chateaux. It's wonderful how the filmmaker blends paintings and drawings of Paris with tinted modern photographs and archival footage from the city under occupation, with Nazi soldiers walking around and French women socializing with them in cafes and clubs. He talks about Vichy, and he delivers a history of Marshall Pétain, seen in all his solid, elegant, aged mediocrity. Did you know he was in his mid-eighties when he was Chief of State of the Vichy government? Now you do.

Sokurov restages, with Louis-Do de Lencquesaing as Jacques Jaujard and Benjamin Utzerath as Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, the meetings between the aristocratic director of the Louvre and all French museums, and the equally high-born German officer in charge of them under the Nazis. Despite all we hear about Nazi art thefts, Sokurov points out that many of the German officers in Paris were fluent in French and lovers of French culture and that Wolf-Metternich was pledged to respecting international conventions of war and protecting France's treasures. De Lencquesaing is memorable here, exuding just the right amount of sorrow and anger, distance and disdain. His cryptic reaction embodies the feelings of the father and daughter who must house the German officer in Vercors' Le Silence de la Mer, clandestinely published in Paris in 1942, and adapted for Jean-Pierre Melville's first film. But as Francofonia shows, Jacques Jaujard and Franz Wolff-Metternich worked together to protect France's artistic treasures.

The French have surrendered, the Germans have occupied the larger northern half of France, and the Louvre is empty, but France's artistic treasures need protecting, and for this the continuing relationship between Jaudart and Wolff-Metterling will be important. But one does not watch Francofonia just to learn about the Louvre and European history: one watches it to see Sokurov weave his magic spell. And to muse in his terms upon the city of Paris and that haunting, central historical crisis for western culture of the Second World War and that essential, troubling time for France of the German occupation. As is noted by Jay Weissberg in his Venice review for Variety, this film, with its period dramatizations, its tense Skype messaging, its museum tour, its archival footage and its speculations and philosophizing about the role of museums in culture, is notable for its "constant shuffling of layers." And that also means the way each of them is a differently textured and subtly colored visual treat. This is largely thanks to another fruitful collaboration with dp Bruno Delbonnel. But also important is a rich variety of visual post-production manipulations, notably amber filters and flickering arc-light and side-sprocket effects to "age" the period recreations. All this makes each new segment a fresh delight to the eye. (Sokurov is the great master of distressed surfaces and of tints and blurs.)

As visual and cinematically rich as Francofonia is, it's also obviously extremely verbal and in its many references quite literary. We may be reminded of Patrick Modiano, the French winner in 2014 of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who has spent a lifetime of fiction-writing exploring like a noir detective-novelist his characters' "memories before his own birth" (which was 1945) of the troubling, fraught 1940's in France. This film could be a good companion piece to Modiano's oeuvre.

The Sun is one, the best, of a Sokurov trilogy about despots, with Moloch (about Hitler); Tarus (about Lenin, as yet unavailable here). Will there be a museum trilogy too? But what can match the Louvre?

Francofonia, 87 mins., debuted at Venice 2015 (two prizes, two nominations), also Toronto and London (one nomination) and over 11 other important international festivals. Released in France Nov. 2015 and very well received by French critics (AlloCiné press rating 3.4), particularly the hard-to-please Cahiers du Cinéma and Les Inrockuptibles. The latter said the film celebrates art as "the lingua franca of western civilization." The film opened in NYC 1 April 2016. Distributed by Music Box it shows in 46 other US cities. A San Francisco Bay Area showing at Landmark theaters runs one week from 29 Apr.-5 May and BAM 6 May.

P.s. I realize Jacques Mandelbaum is right in his Le Monde review to point out that the cooperation of Jaudart and Wolf-Metterling may seem less important compared to high ranking Nazis' robbery of artworks from the Jeu de Paume and the rape of Jewish private collections going on at the same time (events chronicled in other recent films), and that the Louvre under German occupation may seem an odd focus point for a celebration of the role of the museum in western culture. I still think Sokurov's film contains much to savor.

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