When it seems like the world today is an unending series of catastrophes and injustices, and culture is constantly under assault from the forces of ignorance, remember this fact: Seventy-five years ago, the intellectual and artistic capital of Western civilization was in the hands of the Nazis. The actual, literal Nazis, one of the most barbaric and destructive regimes in history, were camped out in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Hitler held Paris in the palm of his hand. It’s really quite astonishing that things turned out as well as they did.
Prompting an awareness of that historical contingency is one of the goals of Aleksander Sokurov’s latest ode to museums, “Francofonia.” Sokurov’s 2012 film “Russian Ark” took a 100-minute, one-take trip through St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, and now he turns his attention to the Louvre. This is a more intellectual exercise, but one that’s ultimately rewarding and even inspiring.
There’s a lot going on, as the 64-year-old Sokurov proves to be every bit as aesthetically ambitious as ever. One minute the director is having a Skype conversation with a freighter captain in the North Sea, the next he’s narrating a history of Paris from the 12th century onward. The heart of the film, though, concerns the Nazi occupation and the delicate partnership between the German Count Franz Wolff-Metternich and the Louvre’s deputy director Jacques Jaujard, which Sokurov sees as instrumental in preventing the wholesale looting of the museum’s collection. (It’s a similar story to the one told in Volker Schlondorff’s 2015 film “Diplomacy.”)
At other points in this cinematic collage, the ghost of Napoleon and the figure of Marianne, the French national symbol, stride the halls of the Louvre, engaging in repetitive discussions. Napoleon, for instance, shouts “I brought all this!” over and over, an acknowledgment of the role of conquest in creating this artistic archive. That, and Sokurov’s obvious resentment of the way Western Europe’s treasures were relatively protected during the war, compared to the wanton destruction on the Eastern Front, demonstrate that the filmmaker is no idealist when it comes to the role of museums.
Overall, though, he’s awed by the ability to connect, to “see the eyes of” those who have lived before. This bond out of time, he’s suggesting, is the core reason for art’s existence. This might end up privileging representational art, especially as practiced in the canonical Western tradition. But it’s hard to argue with when he shows us a 9,000-year-old statue that proves we’ve been making pictures of ourselves since the beginning of time. It’s what we do, and “Francofonia” is a potent reminder of how fragile the whole enterprise can be.
(88 minutes, not rated, opens Friday, May 20 at Cinema 21) GRADE: B+