Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Alexander Sokurov's FRANCOFONIA explores culture & history, war & peace, art & museums

Alexander Sokurov surely is a versatile director. In this new century alone (he's been making movies for over 40 years), his work has spanned the groundbreaking "one-take" museum piece, Russian Ark, to the breathtakingly strange and beautiful Father and Son to The Sun (narratively documenting the abdication of the Japanese Emperor at the close of WWII) to the nearly unbearably moving Alexandra to his version of Faust and now, another "museum" movie that harks back to that Ark and yet is definitely its own thing: FRANCOFONIA.

Mr. Sokurov, pictured at left, often writes, as well as directs his films and he has done so here again. While his visual skills are as fine as ever, it's his memorable writing that turns Francofonia into the special thing that it is. He begins with what sound like phone conversations regarding the very film we're about to see, and then we get visuals of writers such as Chekhov and Tolstoi, then Skype-ing with a fellow named Dirk, during which we hear, "It's not human, dragging art across the ocean!" Only slowly does the content of the movie begin to take shape: art and culture, history and museums, war and peace -- and Sokurov's musings on all of these. And when I call them "musings," this is not to say that they aren't pretty delightful, thought-provoking,and oh, so beautifully spoken (if I am not mistaken, Sokurov does his own narration).

As usual with this man's movies, you'd best pay absolute attention to the visuals and the audio or miss something vital, as Sokurov combines archival footage with beautifully recreated film that looks quite "dated" (it even has that "tracking" strip that runs down the left hand side), making his modern stuff seem archival, too. This is quite nifty.

Rather than giving us a tour of the Louvre, as he did with the Hermitage Museum in Russian Ark, instead he zeros in on that period of the famous French museum during which the Nazis took over half of France, Paris and the museum itself. We get history recreated and narrated, with two fine actors portraying the Frenchman and the German who did the most to "save" the museum's artworks.

The ubiquitous Louis-Do de Lencquesaing (above) portrays Jacques Jaujard, the man in charge of the Louvre, while Benjamin Utzerath plays Franz Wolff-Metternich, the German officer charged with overseeing the art treasures the Nazis took ownership of as they conquered and occupied country after country.  The two men's story runs in and out and around Sokurov's musings in a way that brings us back again and again to the subjects at hand.

Also along for the ride (and the humor they bring) are little Napoleon Bonaparte (Vincent Nemeth, below, right) and Marianne, that symbol of French womanhood and liberty Johanna Korthals Altes, below, left). And while the filmmaker gets a lot of mileage out of Nappy, I wish he could have brought a little more thought and wit to his Marianne, who seems to exist mostly to flounce and gambol like one of those recent Terrence Malick heroines. This may have more to do with the usual filmmaker patriarchal entitlement to "stick with the guys" than anything else. But it does seem a missed opportunity.

Otherwise, Francofonia is a non-stop delight, offering up lovely visuals, even as it gives us non-stop ironies about art and culture, war and various kinds of peace/collaboration. The film would make a fine bookend to the popular French TV series, A French Village, about the country's occupation during WWII, At one point the narration mentions that the "same old slow-seller" has once again appeared on the market. "The product may be very expensive or be free. Yet the price of this product is always set by the buyer. What is it? Can you guess? Think it over...."

The movie rests on what Sokurov chooses to tell us, and how and when, and against which visuals he places all this. His choices could hardly be bettered, and his finale is as splendid as the rest of the film, as he gives his two main characters (and us) a look into their very interesting futures. The movie ends with a shot of two empty chairs, and then a blood-red screen which, in time, turns to a more peaceful blue. Quite fitting. And wonderful,

From Music Box Films, in Russian, French and German with English subtitles and running just 87 minutes, Francofonia opens this Friday, April 1, in New York City at Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and then over the weeks and months to come, elsewhere across the country in some 30 cities. In the Los Angeles area, look for it to open on April 15 at Laemmle's Royal, Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5. Click here and then click on THEATERS (about one-third of the way down the screen) to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and venues. 

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