I always look forward to the Chicago European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center every year – this one is their 19th annual, and it runs from March 4 – 31.
Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2002 masterwork Russian Ark is an eccentric, compelling and genuinely profound examination of Art and History, and how national identities and cultures can be beneficially informed and motivated by those two foundations. Russian Ark all takes place within the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia; we follow the narration of the unseen (camera’s-eye) filmmaker, Sokurov, and his walking pursuit of another visitor, a French Marquis from the 1800s, who shares his knowledge of, and fascination with, a series of single-work examinations and re-enactment tableaux presenting the history behind all they, and we, are seeing. The walk through the museum is an unbroken line (the entire film is one single 90-minute Steadicam shot) that culminates in a strikingly beautiful cast-of-thousands finale.
Russian Ark ends with a powerful metaphor – the idea that the preservation of a great civilization’s historical and cultural records, art and artifacts is existentially crucial to the constructive continuation of that civilization. Upon walking out the museum door at the film’s conclusion, our narrator states “the sea is all around. We are destined to sail forever, to live forever.” That museum is Russia’s ark, preserving everything Russia was and is as surely as Noah preserved primate life on the creator’s Earth.
Thirteen years later, Sokurov has released a companion piece – Francofonia (France, 2015), which uses the history of The Louvre in Paris, France as its foundational story, but still carries over the metaphor of museum-as-ark, and the preservation of art and culture as the preservation of civilization. But unlike the previous film, Sokurov focuses far more on the French history surrounding the museum’s life, and somewhat less on the individual works of art contained within. (And also unlike the previous film, he’s thankfully dispensed with the single-shot conceit.) A great deal of the film concerns the occupation of Paris in 1940 by German forces, and the uneasy collaboration between Jacques Jaujard, the then-director of the Louvre (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), and Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich, then Curator of the Rhineland (Benjamin Utzerath), who had been appointed to oversee the handling of artworks in Paris. While Hitler and Goering were instructing their troops to take possession of valuable “ownerless” artworks throughout Eastern Europe in the Reich’s name, Wolff-Metternich discovered that the Louvre was essentially emptied of thousands of works of art, and that the treasures were dispersed throughout hundreds of estates, chalets and homes throughout rural France. (There’s a stunning image of the huge Grande Gallery hallway, its walls completely stripped of paintings, their empty frames lying on the floor.) Wolff-Metternich, nonetheless, improbably worked with Jaujard to keep those artworks safe where they were.
But just as Russian Ark contained its fair share of allegories, eccentricities and abstractions, so too does Francofonia. The ark metaphor here is somewhat in reference to how huge Assyrian architectural artifacts were perilously transported by sea from the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, to Marseilles, and then to the Louvre. As the film opens, the present-day Sokurov, again our narrator, is in intermittent contact, through sketchy Skype connections, with a cargo ship out on the sea that seems to be in a perpetual state of near-inundation. The Paris-during-occupation sequences are an artful mélange of found historical footage and Sokurov’s own period-perfect re-creations; there are even sequences where the optical audio strip is visible to the left of the frame, and the images’ subtle fluctuations seem lit by an old-fashioned carbon-arc projector. Meanwhile, wandering the galleries (in an unspecified time-frame), between glimpses of La Gioconda and The Raft Of The Medusa, are the twin icons of French history, Napoleon Bonaparte (who is belligerently enthusiastic about reminding you that most of what’s here in the galleries are the spoils of his wars) and Marianne, who is just as insistent about her only lines in the film – “Liberté, égalité, fraternité!” The film is dotted with images and ideas that intermesh in thrilling ways – other times he has a really good idea that doesn’t lead anywhere; he presents it anyway, and then moves on.
As is typical of Sokurov’s work, every frame of the film is richly evocative, with a few instances of simply jawdropping beauty; credit superb cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel for that as much as Sokurov. The film’s only being shown once at the EUFF, which leads me to think a regular theatrical run is in Chicago’s near future. It’d be pretty cool to see the Chicago premiere on the Film Center’s big screen, though, and I genuinely regret not seeing either of these Sokurov films in a real theater. I implore you not to make the same mistake.
“Francofonia” will be shown only once, on Wednesday, March 16th at 6:00 pm.