In the lush, stunning, sometimes trippy and always fascinating “Francofonia,” the brilliant Russian writer-director Alexander Sokurov asks:
“Who would we be without museums?”
I don’t know — Friends of the Park, maybe?
Excuse my cynicism over the shortsighted and wrongheaded but apparently successful effort to stop the Lucas Museum from building on Chicago’s lakefront.
Of course we still have the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art and so many other invaluable homes to priceless treasures — but even the most loyal Chicago art connoisseur will acknowledge the Louvre in Paris is the Museum of all Museums, and that everyone who can afford to make the journey should do so at least once in a lifetime. (It took me a week to recover from the blisters I sustained on my first visit, when I just walked and walked and walked until there was no more walking to be done.)
In “Francofonia,” Sokurov delivers a passionate love poem to the Louvre and its nearly endless artistic riches by focusing on the collaboration between Louvre director Jacques Jaujard (played by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing in imagined re-creation scenes) and the German officer Count Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), who during World War II worked together to ensure the Louvre’s artworks wouldn’t be sent to the Nazis in Germany.
Sokurov seems to have a love-hate relationship with modern art, but he embraces technology wholeheartedly, using special effects to show us the history of the Louvre and giving us amazing drone-captured visuals of Paris from low altitudes. He blends archival footage with dramatic re-creations mocked up to look like newsreel material, and he even has Napoleon Bonaparte (Vincent Nemeth) strut the halls of the Louvre, exclaiming “C’est moi!” when he sees a painting of himself.
Marianne (Johanna Korthas Altes), the national symbol of the French Republic, joins Napoleon in the Louvre, and yes, this is a documentary, but it contains more flights of fancy and more imagined scenarios than most works of fiction. At times Sokurov goes so deep with the digressions and the stylized visuals it becomes a bit of a chore to follow along — but even when “Francofonia” is at its most self-congratulatory and feels a bit condescending, it’s something to see. As Sokurov examines a pivotal point in the Louvre’s history and gives us a virtual tour of the magnificent museum, he makes larger points about the vital importance of art throughout human history.
This is one of the most beautiful films of the year.
Music Box Films presents a documentary directed by Alexander Sokurov. In Russian, German, French and English with English subtitles. Running time: 88 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.