“Francofonia,” a powerful cinematic essay on how art and war are irrevocably intertwined, has an ideal canvas and time peg for its philosophical musings: the Louvre Museum during the Nazi occupation of France.
In an elegiac documentary designed to raise questions more than answer them, director Alexander Sokurov has plenty of rueful observations about how iconic artworks make for excellent war trophies, because art embodies the heart and soul of a vanquished culture. We see the irony of the Germans seeking to haul away the Louvre treasures that the French themselves plundered from other nations.
Sokurov mixes archival footage, historical re-creations (both real and imagined), and meditative narration. Though some of his devices — a brash Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth) gallivanting through the Louvre, for example — don’t always work, his film never fails to keep us interested.
That’s because he balances his poetic, intellectual essaying with a compelling narrative involving Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), the Louvre’s director during World War II, and Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), an art maven in charge of seizing the priceless collection for Germany. The relationship between these two men was pivotal to keeping these treasures out of Hitler’s hands.
At one point, Sokurov laments how Russian art collections in St. Petersburg did not get the same deference as the French ones. It’s a searing sequence, but it ventures into tricky territory: The film mourns the loss of art — without delving into the loss of people. From the beginning, Sokurov asserts that museums strive to exist behind their walls, impervious to the world, yet war has a way of making them seem fragile.
(At the Tivoli.)
Not rated. Time: 1:28.