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Thursday, 16 June 2016

Sydney Film Festival (9) - Max Berghouse reviews Alexander Sokurov's Francofonia (Fr/Germ/Neth, 2015, 87 mins)

Another in a long career of surreal but nonetheless extremely interesting films. In general my preference is for this director's documentary work but he is consistently in this field as well as normal narrative fictional drama.
The Louvre in Paris has probably the world's greatest repository of artwork. The film deals in a relatively episodic manner with the questions of the importance of art compared with "more normal" matters. This seems to be dealt with by one subset of the film in which the director, behind his computer at his study, interacts as best as technology will allow with a freighter captain, carrying large amounts of precious art and where, due to incredibly high seas, there is a real danger of the loss of ship and cargo. Very subtly I think the director intimates that art is more important even than human life, and I noticed that my emotional reactions were more concerned with the cargo than the people aboard. I think this was intentional by the director.
At the Museum itself, in which many, many of its galleries are shown in painterly detail, a revived Napoleon Bonaparte, in military uniform, talks to Marianne (the symbol of the French nation) about his own "creation" of the Museum and its fabulous collections – by virtue of his military prowess. As a matter of fact Napoleon did much to augment the Museum, but it was a very large repository even before. So there is some tangential reference to provenance of artwork and where it should ultimately repose: where it was created or where by virtue of historic events, it ends up.
Lastly, it deals with the interaction of the French director of the Museum and the relevant officer for artworks in the occupying German Army during World War II. The curator is simply described as a leading bureaucrat, with the implication that he was not himself terribly artistically inclined. On the other hand the German officer Count Wolff- Metternich, is shown as having great artistic sensitivity by virtue of his aristocratic birth, education and natural sensitivities. Together they managed to ensure that the Louvre's collections were not remitted to Germany, as was the intention of the occupying powers.
All of these issues are very important and the sensitivity the director brings to the portrayal is obvious. But working through the various themes is really quite hard going. The scenes within the museum itself are exactly what would expect: fabulous and one really could wish for more. Scenes between the French curator and the German officer are very well staged. In particular there is sufficient movement in these scenes to overcome the relative stasis of the scenes of the museum itself.
All in all, very well worth seeing, but by no means the director's best and it requires for reasonable satisfaction in viewing, a considerable working input by the viewer. Subtitles inevitably detract from the complexity of language used as well as from the ability to concentrate on the beautifully worked out shots. That is inevitable, something one should be prepared to accept.

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