“All museums must be prepared for war,” states director Alexander Sokurov during his ongoing narration of his latest film, Francofonia, a meditation on European cultural heritage and conflict via the Louvre. Specifically, the film focuses on the relationship between Louvre director Jacques Jaujard (played by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and director of the Nazi Kunstschutz cultural preservation program Count Franz Wolff-Metternich (played by Benjamin Utzerath) during the Nazi occupation of Paris in World War II. Similar to his masterpiece Russian Ark (2002), this film recreates historical events within a museum, and, in a radically different way to its predecessor, constantly reminds its audience that what it is watching is not just a re-creation of events, but also, specifically, is a film. Russian Ark accomplished this via nearly its entire duration consisting of a single shot; Francofonia does this with several techniques, leading to a less elegant but no less mesmerising film.
The presence of its director as its narrator is established immediately during the opening titles, cutting to Sokurov in his own office – looking less like the office of a film director than that of an art history professor. The narration plainly discusses the fact that we are watching a film, before depicting Sokurov Skyping with a sea captain who has agreed to ship an entire museum’s contents during a storm. Their breakdown in communication leads into a reverie on museums, Russian politics, and then onto the Louvre itself (played over a combination of historical newsreels and contemporary drone footage) before introducing the beginning of communications between Jaujard and Metternich.
It’s during this first meeting of the film’s primary protagonists that a curious cinematic device is employed. Heightening the audience’s perception of these scenes as recreations, they have been artificially aged, with digital representations of analogue film artefacts layered over the sepia-soaked footage, while the aspect ratio changes from contemporary 16:9 to old-school 4:3. While these are standard cinematic choices for depicting the past, another visual addition to these sequences is not: the appearance of the film’s soundtrack – the actual sound track, running vertically along the left side of the frame as it would on actual 16mm film, displaying a constant pair of stereo waveforms which echo the sound onscreen. Significantly, during these recreations, the waveforms only depict the sound from within the cinematic recreation, not the sound of Sokurov’s voiceover. The first waveforms seen represent the sounds of footprints inside the Louvre – an archetypal museum sound – which are also the last waveforms seen in the film. This visual/sonic separation between narrator and story eventually breaks down when the film breaks its self-imposed fourth wall, when Jaujard and Metternich meet the disembodied voice of Sokurov, and their own fates. It is a curious directorial choice to bring such obvious visual attention to the sonic component of a film about museums – as with most films of its kind, the overriding subject is objects – but the waveforms not only serve to objectify sound, they also help to emphasise the film’s preoccupation with relationships: between Jaujard and Metternich, between war and culture, between entire countries.
Along the way, Sokurov as narrator meets two ghosts of France inside the galleries of the Louvre: Marianne (played by Johanna Korthals Altes), the personification of “freedom, equality and brotherhood,” and Napolean (played by Vincent Nemeth) who, with his self-referential psychological complex on his sleeve, constantly insists that the entire Louvre is not just about him, but is in fact him himself, even when seeing iconic pieces that were added to the collection after his own time.
These multiple strands are spliced together in a montage that echoes the museum experience, with objects and characters resonating off each other in various ways merely by their juxtaposition. Constant references to sound abound throughout the film: there are the expected references to silence, including a particularly powerful use of the term when referring to the colonialist display of ancient objects that are “silent, like a prisoner is supposed to be”; Metternich’s biblical reference to having “ears to hear” when Jaujard pleads for the life of a colleague; and a richly poetic moment when Metternich pauses in silence to admire an ancient Egyptian mummy in a vitrine before tapping gently on the glass with a gloved finger, attempting to communicate with the deceased royal through several layers of separation, not the least of which is time.
Ultimately the film is about the power of fragility – the strength of fragile objects, and more fragile people – in enduring the horrors of war, and all other human conflicts, including the current strife rampant within the European Union. While Metternich the soldier taps on a vitrine, it is Jaujard the curator who makes actual physical contact with the Louvre’s art, in a stunningly gorgeous image of his hand hesitantly reaching out to the fingers of a statue. It is a loving caress, a protective grasp, and a silent cry for help rolled into one.