Alexander Sokurov again considers the abstract idea that a museum is an ark drifting through the sea in Francofonia, a film that relates to his earlier film Russian Ark. “The sea is all around us. And we are destined to sail forever, to live forever”, Sokurov writes in Russian Ark. In creating the film, Sokurov captured the timelessness of the Winter Palace and its artifacts. But in Francofonia, Sokurov expresses a contrasting idea: art is vulnerable within a museum.
Sokurov is the narrator and an actor that plays himself in Francofonia. Throughout the film, Sokurov video calls a friend who is transporting works of art in a large ship, an ark, through a storm at sea. The connection breaks frequently and while this occurs, Sokurov initiates a discourse with the viewer. He focuses specifically on the miraculous preservation of the Louvre’s art during Nazi occupation and discusses, by association, the Louvre’s history in non-chronological order. He laments the difference in outcome that occurred when the Nazis invaded Russia compared to their invasion in France. Eastern European artwork was deemed worthy of destruction, and Sokurov implies that this was because the nature of the Bolshevik’s resistance to the Nazis was much greater than the French’s, whose artwork in the Louvre came to be revered.
Because of the efforts of Louvre director Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and his cooperation with like-minded Nazi Occupation officer Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), much of the artwork in the Louvre remained preserved during the Nazi Occupation.
Sokurov uses archive images and videos frequently in Francofonia, although he makes certain viewers realize his film is fiction rather than a documentary by repeatedly breaking the fourth wall. “Behind any documentary image shot there is an artistic endeavor”, Sokurov declares in the press kit for Francofonia, and, likewise, his usage and alteration of this footage is not intended to suggest non-fiction elements in his film.
Two ‘historical’ characters, Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth) and Marianne (Johanna Korthals Altes), are played by actors. Marianne is the only fictional character in Francofonia; she utters only the words “freedom, equality, brotherhood” and dons a Phyragian cap and Greek robe. Her character represents an idea rather than an individual in French history. Napoleon is also as depth-less of a character as Marianne, his repeated “c’est moi [it’s me]” when looking at paintings in the Louvre illustrates his narcissism (he says this even when looking at the Mona Lisa). Together in a scene Marianne and Napoleon echo their phrases and are fundamentally unable to communicate with each other, representing why so much artwork was looted by the Napoleonic Army during the Napoleonic Wars in comparison to the looting by the Nazis in World War II.
In contrast to Napoleon and Marianne, Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich communicated productively in order to preserve the Louvre’s artwork. Sokurov classifies the two men as unsung heroes. The most powerful scene in Francofonia is a construct of fiction: Sokurov imagines a conversation between himself and the two men. As Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich leave his company, their two empty grey chairs suggest the eerie presence of ghosts. Jaujard’s and Wolff-Metternich’s efforts to preserve the Louvre are clearly evident in visiting the Louvre today, yet their names and persons have been essentially forgotten to history. When conducting research for Francofonia, Sokurov was unable to find anyone who could speak to him about Jaujard. His presence in history is like that of a ghost, recognized but not understood, existent but elusive.