Sokurov has created a curious, Godardian elegy to European harmony. Francofonia is a potted history of the Louvre and its role as a lighthouse of European culture. The filmmaker narrates, telling of his fascination with the museum and its contents. Within the wider story, the film focuses on the history of the museum during the war, under Nazi rule. Paradoxically, rather than using the episode as an example of discord, it becomes a story about pan-european harmony. The museum’s director and the occupying German commander enter into an unspoken pact to preserve the museum’s integrity. The German does everything in his power to ensure that the museum’s treasures are not discovered and looted. They develop a relationship which is like something out of Renoir’s La Grande Illusion.
The film documents their relationship through staged reconstructions, with actors taking on the parts, within a narrated, documentary framework. Almost as though Sokurov had an idea for a feature but never had the funds to make it, and this is the compromise result. Their scenes are interspersed with archive footage and a dramatic sequence where a container boat, supposedly carrying a crate of artworks, is lashed by a storm.
Watching the film, you can’t help thinking that it says more about Russian history than the Louvre. The Louvre is a kind of fetishistic symbol for the filmmaker, representing the glory of European culture, a glory with which he identifies. At this time when Russia would appear to be reconfiguring itself, (or reconfigured), as an enemy of Europe, the story of two enemies who find themselves co-operating to save European culture feels like it might be a metaphor. There are hints of Tarkovsky’s meditations on art and culture in The Sacrifice. A quasi-mystical evaluation of European history, one that ring-roads colonialism (including modern-day colonialism) and washes its hands of the bellicose barbarity which has always gone hand-in-hand with European culture. Given this, there’s something unconvincing about Sokurov’s premise, no matter how fascinating. Francofonia is thought-provoking, but it feels as though it’s rooted in 19th century thought rather than the 21st. Having said that, at a time when the socio-cultural discourse surrounding Europe would appear to have been put into reverse, (not just in this country), perhaps this is appropriate.