Best known for his 2002 art-house hit “Russian Ark” — a meditation on Russian history shot in a single, 99-minute take in the Hermitage Museum and utilizing 2,000 period-costumed actors — the director Alexander Sokurov is a visual virtuoso. So it’s odd, not to mention a bit disappointing, to find that the Russian filmmaker’s latest project, “Francofonia,” is so talky and, with rare exceptions, visually dull.
Sokurov himself narrates the film, if narration is even the right word to describe a process that more closely resembles a stream-of-consciousness monologue, albeit a deeply thoughtful and allusive one. The film, which centers on the history of the Louvre museum — particularly its fate during the Nazi occupation of Paris in World War II — opens with Sokurov on a phone call, apparently, with the captain of a container ship somewhere in a storm-tossed sea, discussing the transportation of art. (A metaphor for an unsteady ship of state, perhaps, and the efforts of governments to safeguard cultural patrimony? Maybe.)
His voice-over continues — once the film has moved, slowly, to its true subject, art and power — to alternate between thinking out loud and providing moreconventional setups for several reenactments.
These re-create a series of meetings between former Louvre director Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and Count Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), the head of the Nazi Kunstschutz program of cultural preservation. Metternich was a cultured German aristocrat who tacitly acquiesced in Jaujard’s efforts to hide much of the Louvre’s art from Nazi plunder; Hitler eventually recalled him from his post.
But these scenes are few and far between, interspersed with shots of contemporary Paris, archival photos and several fantasy sequences involving Napoleon Bonaparte (Vincent Nemeth) and Marianne (Johanna Korthals Altes), the symbolic personification of France’s spirit of “freedom, equality and brotherhood.” At one point, the two are shown sitting on a bench in front of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa,” as Napoleon exclaims, “It is me!”
“Dear Marianne,” Sokurov whispers, “chase him away.”
Napoleon’s point, of course, is that he was instrumental in the expansion of the Louvre into what it is today. A sub-theme of Sokurov’s film is that the Nazis weren’t the only plunderers; many of the antiquities in the Louvre were acquired during French military campaigns.
“Francofonia” is full of such ideas to chew on. But despite numerous shots of gorgeous art, the effort of bringing a camera inside the Louvre rarely seems worth it. A trick shot of a German plane moving in slow motion through a gallery makes for a striking visual metaphor, but it stands out in a movie that is mostly static, dark and murky, like an infomercial shot in natural light, after hours. (It was shot that way, with the participation of the museum. The Louvre is listed as an associate producer of the film.)
The title “Francofonia” refers to the diaspora of Frenchspeaking peoples and of the French empire. “Where would we be without museums?” Sokurov muses. It’s a good question. Later, near the one-hour mark, the filmmaker asks, “You aren’t tired of listening to me yet?” If you aren’t, you will be soon.
Unrated. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains brief images of corpses. In Russian, French and German with subtitles. 97 minutes.