Friday, April 22, 2016


I think Peter Greenaway’s Belly Of An Architect (1987) has finally met its match in terms of architecture on film in the form of Alexander Sokurov’s Francofonia - an experimental feature concerning the preservation of important cultural artifacts during World War 2. I’m sure there are folks who feel that there have been movies to come out since 1987 that have done architecture on film justice, but in my personal opinion most films on the subject of architecture and/or design (documentary, biopic or fiction) often times only scrape the surface or, even worse, come up short (I think my opinion holds a little more weight in this specific instance as I not only immerse myself in film but I also studied architecture & design for five years and have continued to work in the field for 11 additional years and counting). Francofonia is kind of an unorthodox history lesson that captivates rather than bores. In the same way 24 Hour Party People is a chaotic yet organized history lesson on the Manchester music scene of the 80’s & 90’s, Francofonia is a chaotic yet organized look in to World War 2-era architecture, “European guilt” and the importance of art preservation during times of war.
To be honest, Francofonia focuses more on art preservation than it does Architecture & design (I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression that this is solely about architecture).

I know it’s pretty lazy to compare Alexander Sokurov to Andrei Tarkovsky in the year 2016 (it’s so easy & obvious) but the comparison goes much deeper than similar shots of a withering tree in the middle of an open field. At times Fancofonia feels like a heavily reworked/remixed version of the middle segment within Tarkovsky’s Mirror where we see real archival War footage mixed in to the semi-fictional story that is The Mirror. The only difference is that Francofonia mixes fiction & non-fiction much more seamlessly than Tarkovsky did in The Mirror
There's also a subconscious connection to Elem Klimov's Come & See (another Tarkivsky-esque movie).
In the final moments of Klimov's 1985 war film we, the audience & the film's protagonist, are presented with the question as to weather or not we'd go back in time to kill Hitler as a baby in an effort to undo everything he did as an adult...

These types of crazy questions aren't presented to the audience in Francofonia but Come & See's representation of Hitler through art seems to have rubbed off on Sokurov.

And I know this is another cliché/obvious statement, but Sokurov’s latest feels like the kind of dream you’d have while taking a mid-day nap. It’s weird, confusing, foggy, beautiful and (recent) real life elements creep in to your sleeping subconscious. Not only does Francofonia chronicle the plan/agreement to preserve pieces of art in the midst of World War 2 (played out through the on-screen relationship between French civil servant Jacques Jaujard & Nazi officer Franz Metternich) but there’s an additional layer as Sokurov inserts himself into his own movie in a separate (yet loosely related) story (these segments were very reminiscent of the opening sequence in Holy Motors where we see Leos Carax insert himself into his own film). There’s a lot more to the film (which clocks in at only 80-something minutes) but in an effort to not give too much away (or over-explain) I would go off of that for now.

Art appreciation seems to be a thing in cinema these last couple of years more than usual (Portrait Of The Artist, National Gallery, Museum Hours, Mr. Turner, Monuments Men, etc) and Francofonia is like a hybrid/amalgamation of it all. The art preservation angle is a callback to George Clooney’s Monuments Men. All the scenes of Sokurov’s camera wandering aimlessly through the Louvre are reminiscent of Portrait Of The Artist & Fredrick Wiseman’s National Gallery.
Scenes set in the Louvre also bring to mind Anna Karina & Co. running through the halls of the very same museum in Band Of Outsiders...

Band Of Outsiders / Francofonia

Outside of cinema, popular artists like Kanye West, Jay-Z & Beyonce like to show their interest in arts outside of their own (or they just want to take nice photo opps and name drop painters, designers & architects that folks might not give them credit for knowing). Much of the art featured in Francofonia is often cited or associated with the aforementioned artists these days…
Kanye West's Yeezus tour set design seemed to be inspired by elements of the Louvre (the pyramids would be the most obvious inspiration but in the last 5 years Kanye has sited the Louvre a lot more than he has the pyramids)
Jay-Z & Beyonce visit the Louvre (left). Much of the art they checked out on their much-publicized visit to the museum is featured in Francofonia (right)

Francofonia also ties in to Sokurov’s older stuff. It goes without saying that Russian Ark & Francofonia go hand in hand as both movies are essentially warped history lessons on the subject of European art, architecture, politics, etc. If my earlier assessment of Sokurov’s latest film being an offshoot of The Mirror doesn’t work for you, picture Francofonia as a sequel to Russian Ark (I know Russian Ark is specific to Russian history, but it’s still a branch off of the very large tree of European history). The fascination with the likes of Adolf Hitler that we saw in Sokurov’s Moloch (2002) continues in Francofonia. Through subtle voiceover narration placed on top of archival footage of Hitler in certain scenes, Sokurov in turn makes Hitler a “character” in the movie. We see a fictitious version of Napoleon which brings to mind Sokurov’s "Trilogy Of Power" (Moloch, Taurus, The Son). Napoleon’s presence in Francofonia makes the film feel like a new chapter in the saga. Without meaning to, Sokoruv breathed new life in to some of his older films. Francofonia made me dust off my Sokurov DVD's that I hadn't thought about in a while.

Normally Alexander Sokoruv is the kind of filmmaker I have to suggest to people with caution or some kind of disclaimer. Not because his movies are bad (quite the opposite), but because his work is often times an acquired taste. But Francofonia can be enjoyed by even a casual movie fan. You don’t have to be a super cinephile or arthouse aficionado. All you need to have is an appreciation or fascination with art, history, war or all of the above. Even in all of Fracnofonia’s experimentation & non-traditional/non-linear storytelling, this is still an accessible movie for people outside of its intended audience (this might be one of the most non-off putting feature-length experimental films to come out in quite some time).


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