Aleksandr Sokurov’s Francofonia is a spiritual successor to his innovative 2002 film Russian Ark, more so thematically than aesthetically. Russian Ark was a narrativized tour of The Hermitage that doubly served as a re-enactment of parts of Russian history. The most important fact about Russian Ark, however, is that it was shot entirely in one take – a formal element missing from Sokurov’s new film.
Francofonia exposes Sokurov’s love affair with the intertwining discourses of history, art, and the invariably changing geopolitical landscape. Focusing primarily on The Louvre, Sokurov alternates between archival footage, re-enactments, and vérité-style documentary methods to explore the philosophical and political relationship between history and art. The Louvre itself is a fascinating space to unearth this relationship, given that building itself as gone through numerous iterations (it was formally a royal palace in the Middle Ages; remnants of the structure still remain in the museum’s crypt). In addition to the French Revolution, what ultimately attracts Sokurov to The Louvre is the role that Paris (and France in general) played during the Second World War.
While Sokurov’s meta-approach here is appreciated, Francofonia is altogether too subjectively tied to the filmmaker’s own ponderous thoughts. Sokurov, who also writes and narrates the film, feels too much like a didactic recitation of key historical moments in the building’s (and the country’s) history.
Though the historical anecdotes make good use of intermediality (several re-enactments are made to look like archival footage), the aesthetic choices here never feel quite as innovative or as symbiotic with the themes as they were in Russian Ark. Problematically, given the film’s focus on artefactual aesthetics, the film’s own inability to cohere its form with its themes in a meaningful way betrays its own obsessions.
Sokurov’s attention to detail and evident excitement about his object are admirable, but the film’s impenetrable subjectivity makes it a difficult work to sit through.
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Mark Barber: @WorstCinephile