BEIRUT: Aleksandr Sokurov is one of the great masters of cinema. It’s an accolade the Russian writer-director has shrugged off with some ambivalence.
While participating in a film incubation platform run by the Doha Film Institute earlier this year, Sokurov began a master class with a detailed explanation of why cinema is, for him, a highly derivative art, inferior to every art form that has preceded it.
“I’ve never thought of cinema as something very important,” he told film critic Jean-Michel Frodon. “Cinema for me now is just a form of art, a shape of art. It must be blamed for many things. I would say it does not have many achievements.”
“So many beautiful things have been created within literature, poetry specifically,” Sokurov told this journalist in an interview. “In my opinion, cinema has not approached this level. I think no one can be compared to Thomas Mann, Dickens or Flaubert ... [Swedish director Ingmar] Bergmann is the only exception, but that’s not much for 100 years.”
Sokurov has made several films about art over his career. His 2002 tour de force “Russian Ark” tells the story of Petrograd’s Hermitage Museum, moving fluidly back and forth through Russian history with a handful of characters and thousands of costumed extras. He made the film in a single, uncanny, 90-minute take on a steadicam.
His most recent feature, “Francofonia,” 2015, can be read as a part of an ongoing cinematic exploration of art that includes “Russian Ark.”
Like “Russian Ark,” “Francofonia” isn’t a straightforward documentary but a doc-fiction hybrid. The film’s fictive core recounts the history of the Louvre museum, focusing on World War II, when Paris was ruled by an occupying Nazi administration.
At the center of this story are Louvre director Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), and Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), the German officer responsible for the Reich’s Kunstschutz (art protection) program.
The story Sokurov tells of their wartime relationship is one of collaboration. Jaujard reluctantly opened the museum to the German, who set about removing most of its precious collection and storing it in a network of abandoned chateaux around France.
Though several of Wolff-Metternich’s Nazi superiors would have happily pillaged the Louvre, Sokurov informs his audience that his measures protected the collection from the worst excesses.
In a final, amused turn of the knife, Sokurov’s off-frame narrator calls the two men before the camera to inform them of what awaits them, post-war.
“Such ravings!” Jaujard spits when the narrator’s done, then walks off frame.
The Jaujard-Wolff-Metternich story is only part of a broader contemplation of the nexus of art and political power – one of several layers of documentary and fiction, affection and lyricism, criticism and amusement. Each layer speaks a slightly different cinematic dialect.
The Jaujard-Wolff-Metternich sequences are depicted in patchy tones reminiscent of 1940s-era film stock, tinted like early experiments with color film. (The eyes of Utzerath’s Wolff-Metternich are a watery blue.) These most fictive parts of the film are made to resemble post-production rushes, with sound meter-style video cresting-and-troughing up the left side of the frame.
Elsewhere, the film’s hues run the gamut from the black-and-white of WWII-era documentary footage, to sepia-tinted historical recreations of German warplanes flying over Paris, to the luminous framing of the Louvre’s exhibits today.
The flattest shard of the film, the doc-like framing narrative, is taken up with Sokurov’s efforts to have a Skype chat with Dirk, the captain of a container ship. Having loaded a container of art that’s steaming east, Dirk’s hit a patch of bad weather that interrupts their conversation and threatens his precious cargo.
The “innermost” layer of narrative is occupied by superb vistas of the Louvre itself and two ghost-like figures who step into the frame occasionally to comment on the proceedings and utter remarks to Sokurov’s off-frame narrator.
One is Marianne – the personification of the French Revolution whose visage has been multiply rendered in the museum’s collection. The other is Napoleon Bonaparte, the autocrat who ended the revolution.
Sokurov could hardly make this film without Bonaparte, who not only bolstered the museum’s collection with archaeological and fine art pieces his men pillaged during his campaigns, but with portraits, composed by Jacques-Louis David and his colleagues, depicting various stages of the emperor’s career.
The ambiguous cultural complementary between these two figures – anticipating the relationship between Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich – is nicely summarized in a brief scene in which Bonaparte and Marianna sit alongside one another, gazing at Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”
“Liberte. Egalite. Fraternite,” Marianne whispers.
“It’s me,” Napoleon replies.
“Liberte. Egalite. Fraternite,” Marianne breathes.
“Without me,” he sneers, “there would be nothing.”
“Francofonia” will screen in Beirut Sunday evening, the opening film of Arte Film Week. An annual fixture at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil, this year’s cycle shows off some of the most accomplished films produced by the Franco-German broadcaster.
This season’s several highlights include a few older films. The cycle will conclude with a projection of a restored print of Mathieu Kassovitz’s caustic, and prophetic, 1995 directorial debut “La Haine.”
Recent works by some of the most respected auteurs in international cinema today – Roy Andersson’s bleakly comic “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence,” 2014, “Cemetery of Splendour,” 2015, by Palme d’Or-winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul and (in case you missed it during German Film Week), Maren Ade’s serious-minded comedy “Toni Erdmann,” 2016.
Rounding out the program are Ivo M. Ferreira’s “Letters from War,” Ruben ?stlund’s “Force Majeure” and Mikhaël Hers’ “This Summer Feeling.”
At one point in “Francofonia,” Sokurov’s narrator remarks that it was Bonaparte who “made the Louvre a state museum. Suddenly the state knew it couldn’t live without museums.”
What would Sokurov make, Lebanese audiences may wonder, of their own state’s relationship to its museums, old and new.
“Francofonia” is screening at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Sunday at 8:30 p.m. Arte Film Week continues through Oct. 23 for more, see http://www.metropoliscinema.net.