"Who needs France without the Louvre? Or Russia without the Hermitage?"
These questions, addressed to Francofonia's audience by director and narrator Alexander Sokurov, may recall Russian Ark, the Siberia-born filmmaker's best-known (and arguably best) movie. But while his new film is nominally about the Paris museum, it's less focused than Russian Ark. That 2002 cinematic pageant presented Russian history in a single, unedited 87-minute take that danced through the St. Petersburg landmark.
Francofonia has no such unifying device. It's a multilingual patchwork of musings and remembrances, vintage photographs and archival footage, and recently photographed scenes that have been digitally altered to appear old. And while much of the action is set in the Louvre, Sokurov still has Russia on his mind.
The action begins with Sokurov at a computer screen, involved in a desperate video-phone conversation with the captain of a ship in a storm. The cargo is at risk, and the suggestion is that the containers are filled with artistic treasures. The filmmaker directly links this imaginary disaster to the many artifacts destroyed by the imperial looters who filled the great European museums.
Pivotal, yet taking less than a third of movie's running time, is the fate of the Louvre under Nazi occupation. The museum's director in 1940, Jacques Jaujard (Louis-do de Lencquesaing), meets the German assigned to control French art and culture, Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath). He speaks French, and supports Jaujard's plan to save the Louvre's masterworks from being shipped to Germany.
The other principal characters are Marianne (Johanna Altes), the symbolic embodiment of France, and the ghost of Napoleon Bonaparte (Vincent Nemeth). Both wander the Louvre after hours, and the onetime emperor explains that he conquered much of Europe and the Mediterranean for cultural reasons. "I went to war for art," he proclaims.
This is surely not true, but Sokurov has a tradition of ascribing odd motives to dead dictators in such solemn historical burlesques as The Sun (about Hirohito) and Moloch (whose protagonist, Hitler, has an archival-film cameo in Francofonia, touring Paris after its fall).
Sokurov launches a camera-equipped drone to view Paris' rooftops, and offers a pocket history of the Louvre's building and expansion, including I.M. Pei's vast underground addition. He uses CGI to add such incongruous touches as a German airplane that flies through the museum's courtyard, and to simulate the breakup of communication with the ship captain — the digital-age equivalent of faded film, cracked paintings, and damaged sculptures.
If the overall effect is wispy and elegiac, that's hardly a surprise. The director has previously made nine films that include the word "elegy" in their titles. Like many of those previous reveries, Francofonia is roundabout and impressionistic, and likely to bewilder viewers who prefer traditional structures and unambiguous meanings.
The director does have one straightforward message, inspired by the Nazi respect for French culture, if only by contrast. On the Eastern front, German troops pillaged and destroyed, motivated by hatred of "Bolshevism" and the Slavs. In St. Petersburg, the Hermitage became a hospital and an estimated one million died of disease and starvation.
This aside has little to do with France, but it is the most compelling of the movie's loosely stitched fragments. Wandering through the Louvre's colonial plunder, Sokurov ponders the lost worlds of Egypt and Assyria, but ultimately finds his way home.