Francofonia - Not just a rehash of Russian Ark

Francofonia is the latest film by renowned Russian auteur Aleksandr Sokurov. I felt it was a must see as Sokurov directed one of my 3 favourite films, Days of the Eclipse (1988), and possibly my second favourite film of the decade so far, Faust (2011), as well producing some highly technically proficient andsubstantially unique films in between such as Russian Ark (2002) and Mother and Son (1997).

Francofonia is a meditation on life, art and the Nazi occupation of Paris. It achieves this through the exploration of the Louvre, Paris' (and perhaps the world's) most famous art gallery. The film doesn't have a strong narrative, it instead relies on ponderous narration and a mix of archival footage and Sokurov's trademark stunning, yet slightly unnerving visuals, this time in the Louvre.

Francofonia can be identified as belonging to a recent wave of documentary and fiction films exploring niche subject matter such as Peter Greenaway's Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015). The film immediately struck me as another important contribution to art cinema from Sokurov. It is bleak, reflective, and highly unique content and presentation are alone enough to say that Sokurov has indeed done it again.

The film has been met with a weak reception partially because people have deemed it to be too focused on emulating Sokurov's most popular film, the aforementioned Russian Ark. Although this comparison is certainly warranted (both films being set in an art gallery with similarly unusual "plots"), Francofonia does not deserve to be overshadowed by its older sibling. Indeed though it is technically less remarkable (as Russian Ark is a single shot that lasts for approximately 90 minutes), it does exceed its sibling in a few key areas, these being the more contemplative atmosphere of Francofonia as well as its deeper focus on history rather than its own virtuosity.


Francofonia does have its flaws however, as it lacks some of the presence and character of some of Sokurov's better films, and with cinematography by Bruno Debonnel, who worked on the Sokurov's visually remarkable Faust, one would naturally expect more from Francofonia. That being said, much of the film was assembled from archive footage, and as such it compares favourably to similar, earlier projects such as Ken Jacobs' mammoth experimental film Star Spangled to Death (2004).The comparison with Jacobs' film also illustrates the influence of documentary, found footage and experimental filmmaking on Francofonia, which does nothing but benefit from these influences.

Obviously this film is not for everyone. It is deeply contemplative, vague and has roots deep within the slow cinema movement. But for those who can stomach this without rushing to criticise its similarities with Russian Ark, this film will be a real treat. This is, in my opinion, one of the 10 best films of 2015 and an already underrated classic deserving more attention. Sokurov has once again shown he is one of the foremost directors working in film today.

Carl Mouatt

Francofonia is screening at the Sydney Film Festival, 8-19 June 2016. A 6-film pass is available to students for $72 + booking fee, or single tickets are $19.90 + booking fee.