Alexander Sokurov makes museum pieces. But they don’t gather dust in frames or vitrines; instead, they spring to life.
In his quasi-documentary “Russian Ark” (2002), he related the 300-year history of the Hermitage while touring the formidable St. Petersburg museum in one seemingly unbroken traveling shot. The artifice was so perfect that it was both invisible and inescapable.
In Sokurov’s new hybrid nonfiction and fiction film, “Francofonia,” the artifice breaks down. Like some of the documentaries of Chris Marker or the recent “not-a-film” films of Jafar Panahi, Sokurov makes the film-making process part of the film. The ostensible subject is the relationship between Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), deputy head of the Louvre museum in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, and Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), head of the German agency in charge of handling the precious art works in the Louvre.
Framing this episode is the first-person narrative in which Sokurov broods on his film’s value as he edits it. He sits in an office in front of a computer screen, watching rushes from the film within the film along with intermittent archival stills and footage illustrating points in his ongoing voice-over narration about the history of the Louvre and of art itself.
Meanwhile, in the “real” world, a friend, a sea captain, appears sporadically on Skype, the connection repeatedly broken as the captain tries to pilot his cargo ship, laden with art treasures, through a mammoth storm. While Sokurov makes a movie about how some art survived the tumult of World War II, a microcosmic ark bears it precariously over an allegorical ocean — with rougher seas ahead.
Sounds schematic, and it sometimes is. In particular, scenes involving the specters of Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth) and a Bastille-era revolutionary named Marianne (Johanna Korthals Altes) verge on the ludicrous.
Similar ghosts of the past proved luminous and playful in “Ark;” but here Napoleon and Marianne are pests who pop up to engage in inane arguments. As both gaze at the “Mona Lisa,” Marianne repeats robotically “Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!” (Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!) and Napoleon barks back monomaniacally, “C’est moi!” (It’s me!) To her, it seems that this epitome of art embodies the values of the Revolution. To him, it’s just a manifestation of his narcissistic will to power.
Despite such lapses, Sokurov’s elegy for Europe — and for art — is eloquent, sorrowful, and challenging. And films like this suggest that such epitaphs may be premature.
Written and directed by Alexander Sokurov. Starring Louis-do de Lencquesaing, Benjamin Utzerath, Vincent Nemeth, Johanna Korthals Altes. At the Museum of Fine Arts, various dates April 20 through May 7. 90 minutes. Unrated (ponderous reflections on art and fate). In Russian, French, and German, with subtitles.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.