By Richard von Busack
What happens when you’re too open-eyed to believe that France is all about liberty, equality and brotherhood, and yet you’re still emotionally convinced that the nation is the last refuge of the beautiful and the logical? In Alexander Sokurov’s case, you make Francofonia.
As in his 2002 Russian Ark, which prowled Leningrad’s Hermitage, Sokurov sees ghosts in the hallways of the Louvre. Or rather, a spirit: Marianne, the female personification of France. This phantom of liberty in her Phrygian cap haunts the halls, repeating her three-word motto like a parrot. The unseen narrator of Francofonia also meets Marianne’s exact opposite—the ghost of that enemy of liberté, égalité and fraternité, Napoleon Bonaparte. The emperor pauses in front of Jacques Louis David’s portrait of his coronation. He points and boasts, “That’s me!”
Sokurov probes a crisis point in the museum’s multi-century history: The story of how much of the Louvre’s collection was hidden from the Nazi occupiers. This spiriting away of the masterpieces was, perhaps (this movie is full of perhapses) the result of an understanding between two men. One was the Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath); the other was the Louvre’s director Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing).
Sokurov considers the war years the most fascinating part of the tale. The director, however, is at his most interesting when he’s recording his Roland Barthes-like observations. Does art, like France, truly have a civilizing mission? He considers the massive art heists by Napoleon and Hitler as a method to empurple their regimes—to make them royal.
When Sokurov mulls over the importance of portraiture—“Who would I have been, if I never saw the eyes of those who came before me?”—one suspects that he’s alluding to the newest threat to European art, the fundamentalist Muslims who reject all depiction of the human form. But who can say? It’s a slippery film. Enjoy scoping the things you can never quite get a look at because of the stampede of tourists, and mull over Sokurov’s sentiment that the contents of the Louvre are worth more than all of France.