Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit viff.org and follow VIFF on Twitter at @viffest.
A visual essay by master filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov, Francofonia fits well within his directorial oeuvre, blending fantasy, fiction, memory, philosophy, and theatrical presence into an exceptionally poetic mode of filmmaking. Unfortunately, with Francofonia, Sokurov’s intellectual sensibilities have perhaps gotten the best of him. Rather than produce a thought-provoking dialogue, Sokurov’s commentary polemicizes his views, turning the dialogue into a pedantic history lesson. To some degree, this over intellectual fare is redeemed by a brilliant and inventive final act, wherein Sokurov inserts himself into history in order to speak to the two people primarily featured in the film. However, Sokurov’s interjection into the historic film within a film does not provide wholeness but merely an excellent side-bar to the otherwise tedious Francofonia.
Highly self-reflexive, as all his films are, the film shows Sokurov himself in the present speaking with a friend on a ship via video chat. This ship is transporting art, presumably for the Louvre, which is central to Sokurov’s essay on pre and post war French history. In Kaufman-esque fashion, Sokurov is seen editing his film Francofonia, a fictional biopic within the overarching documentary. This film within a film is made to look like old film stock, rendering verisimilitude for its depicted era. Footage inside the Louvre as well as archival images from WWII are scattered along the film as Sokurov’s voice-over provides insightful commentary about the images being seen.
In a Russian Ark like fantasy sequence, a young woman and male general wander the empty, decadent Louvre, perhaps acting as proxy to an intimation of the art featured within. The woman who says ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ (liberty, equality, fraternity—motto and meaning of the three colours of the French flag) represents one side of France, the desire for independence, while the General, who says ‘this is me’ about all the paintings, seems to represent France as a whole. Some superimposition is used here between fantasy and documentary footage within the Louvre, as if the artworks are enabled to speak to their audience.
Edited in his poetic style, the film crosses between beatific images and a resonant soundtrack which is frustratingly undercut by his overly encyclopedic display of knowledge. While every scene feels spirited and authentic, even though depicting history, Sokurov’s signature poetry is undermined by his constant exposition. Though impassioned, the history lesson is much less interesting than the unquestionably brilliant cinematography besides it. For this reason, while underwhelming as a whole, Francofonia is merely lesser work by a masterful director; in other words, it is still great.
While underwhelming as a whole, Francofonia is merely lesser work by a masterful director; in other words, it is still great.