Francofonia is the latest reflection on European culture by Alexander Sokurov after his 2002 ‘Russian Ark’, which was a feature length tour of the Hermitage Museum in one uninterrupted tracking shot designed as a statement against the montage theorists of Soviet silent cinema. In Francofonia, that Soviet-like montage and the 2002 uninterrupted views give way to a multi layered account of European history through a reflection of the function of art after those who created it die. Guided by the voice of the director-narrator, the movie uses images, viewing points and art works as iconic supernatural vortexes. What I loved about this movie is the way artworks are used as vehicles of presence through time and space even when the whole point of the film’s plot is that the artworks stay where they are (in the Louvre) during Nazi occupation of Paris. In other words, according to Sokurov the art moves even when it stays still.
Francofonie uses works from the Louvre art collection both as props and as protagonists. Visually the lens gives way to the anachronistic look of photographs, archive material and graphics (for example, the time lapse drawings tracinbg each stage of the Louvre’s construction) to convey different layers of time and memory. There is even a comic Napoleon who exclaims ‘C’est moi!’ not only before the paintings that glorify his actions but also in front of the Mona Lisa and the Marianne. The way Sokurov injects comedy into the appreciation of the pictorial depiction of those tragic moments that changed European history for good helps the viewer detach himself from the projected seriousness of art as such in the context of a museum. Thus, it is through comedy that we can really access what Hitler really meant for he is depicted through his incoherences and not through his efficiencies and as Hannah Arendt used to say, his power lied in his idiocy. The film seems to ask us why Hitler treated Paris so well and Saint Petersbourg so badly. Was it because of the art or because of his own social insecurity? In any case, the horror of Europe could only be understood through the supernatural and the comic.
Given his conflation of comedy and tragedy, it does not surprise us that the first image following the opening credits does not evoke the Louvre, Napoleon or Hitler but Leo Tolstoy, the man who immortalized the costly triumph over Napoleon’s invasion in his greatest novel. It is this ‘costly triumph’ that is thematised in the film by the face off that takes place between Jacques Jaujard (played by Louis Do de Lencquesaing) as director of the Louvre and Count Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Urtzerath), art historian and officer in charge of securing the museum’s holdings for the German government.
By the time the Wehrmacht entered Paris in June 14, 1940, most of the Louvre’s important works had been transferred to various chateaux across France –a process we see in shrewdly edited exchanges between actual footage and reenactments. Would these chateaux be bombed by the Germans like London and Rotterdam? It is that threat that pends over the viewer like Damocles’ sword during the whole film. The question, however, is what are we saving and what are we saving it for. Again, the ethical question so current today. Why do we do what we do? What is the point of painting in times of photography? This is where Jaujard’s arguments and manipulations of bureaucratic regulations becomes an art form of its own. The art of manipulation to save art from destruction as a proxy for art. According to Sokurov, art and its preservation is an allegory of the fact that values matter more than material possessions. So is it art relevant because of its materiality or because of its concept. In other words, the preservation of material things is more important than the material things themselves. Can there be concept without value and ethics?
But what about the art works? Sokurov seems to say that in art and particularly in portraiture, the very heartbeat and stored memory of humanity’s ways of looking at and examining itself –something every penetrating gaze confirms, beginning with Tolstoy- truly resides. Paintings and their telepathic powers, a supernatural communication of sorts between us and the dead. So are paintings an instrument for ghostly appearances? Are they what ghosts are about? At this point, Sokurov seems to ask himself what would have become of European culture, or of his own evolution had portraiture never emerged. Judging from the portraits we see, he implies that such things as introspection and the importance of individual might no have developed. Napoleon, however, does not need his represented likeness to identify himself with the art. Similarly, Hitler’s decision to save the Louvre seems to follow this same path. Both of them are sociopathic narcissists who could only be understood through humour because of their incapacity to look at themselves and thus, communicate in time with us. It is as if, for Sokurov, the only place of memory is that of art. J A T