Tag Archives: Aleksandr Sokurov

CAPSULE: FRANCOFONIA (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Benjamin Utzerath, Vincent Nemeth, Johanna Korthals Altes, Aleksandr Sokurov

PLOT: An experimental documentary on the Louvre, with dramatic recreations of the Nazi takeover and Napoleon showing up to point out his own portraits.

Srill from Fancofonia (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This stream-of-consciousness companion piece to Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov‘s amazing one-shot exploration of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, is too messy with too many wild hairs. Ultimately, it seems to be more about Sokurov’s own artistic whims and impulses than it is about the Louvre.

COMMENTS: As the opening credits scroll, we hear director Sokurov take (scripted) phone calls regarding post-production work on his latest movie (presumably Francofonia itself). The second caller (“Captain Dirk,” who we’ll meet again later) asks about the director’s progress and he confesses “I don’t think the film is successful.”

I generally agree, although any movie that spotlights so many masterpieces from the Louvre can’t be a complete failure. Sokurov is a true connoisseur of European art (as seen in Russian Ark) and a has a legitimate love for the Louvre, but this documentary/narrative hybrid piece shows no real organization or purpose. It’s like an spur-of-the-moment whirlwind trip to a museum. Partly, Sokurov wants to give an account of how deputy museum director Jacques Joujard hid the museum’s treasures from the Nazis ahead of the occupation of Paris in 1940, with the silent blessing of  Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, the cultured professor Hitler had appointed as “caretaker” of French cultural treasures. This potentially interesting story is told with both archival footage and recreations using actors. But Sokurov masks his straightforward tale with multiple digressions: his own poeticized musings on European culture; a mysterious character who runs around the darkened Louvre in a gown saying “liberté, égalité, fraternité”; the ghost of Napoleon (who shows up to point out his own portraits); Sokurov’s fanciful Skype discussions with the aforementioned Captain Dirk, who’s carrying a load of museum-bound historical treasures on a freighter imperiled by rough seas; and so on.

Francofonia suffers by comparison with Russian Ark, whose one-take, two-character gimmick imposed structure and discipline on the film while still allowing Sokurov to indulge his imagination. Sokurov is intelligent, and his a love for museums and for the preservation of European high culture comes across, but Francofonia is so scattershot that his passion is dissipated. A conventional documentary would hit at least as hard: indeed, moments when the camera merely pans over the straining figures of “The Raft of the Medusa” or past each curl in an Assyrian lamassu’s beard, or zooms in so we can see the intimate cracks in the “Mona Lisa”‘s aging canvas, are the film’s strongest sights.

Sokurov says he wants to create cinematic tributes to Madrid’s Prado and London’s British Museum next. I hope he finds a more interesting angle from which to film these projects than he did for his Louvre piece.

The Music Box Francofonia DVD or Blu-ray includes two substantial extras, each about an hour long: the making of documentary “Visitors to the Louvre” and “The Man Who Saved the Louvre,” a conventional documentary (which the DVD refers to as a “play”) on Jacques Joujard.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sometimes the bizarre can illuminate the poignant, sometimes it distracts. In ‘Francofonia’ it most definitely distracts… terribly over-directed and seems strange just for the sake of being strange.”–Tom Long, Detroit Free Press (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: FAUST (2011)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Johannes Zeiler, Anton Adasinsky, Isolda Dychauk

PLOT: A doctor who’s bored with life sells his soul to a Moneylender in exchange for one night with a beautiful young woman.

Still from Faust (2011)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Though it can be stuffy, this hallucinatory version of Faust also brings us monkeys on the moon, a gynecological exam utilizing hard-boiled eggs, and an inexplicable ending that sees the title character apparently trapped in an afterlife that looks like a volcanic island of the coast of Iceland. Literary-minded weirdophiles may want to stump for this subtle and intelligent, but somewhat confused, movie to take up a slot on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made, but it’s not inspiring enough to make it on the first ballot.

COMMENTS: Aleksandr Sokurov’s adaptation of Faust keeps the central story and conflict, presenting the tragic tale of a jaded natural philosopher who finds further dissatisfaction in his pursuit of Earthly pleasure and power, but the Russian director’s take may not please everyone. Goethe’s epic poem/play, the take on the Germanic legend which most informs Sokurov’s, was full of phantasmagorical digressions, such as a parade of pagans during Walpurgis Night. So is Sokoruv’s version; but the digressions are not the same, and the director adopts Goethe’s method as a license to pursue his own visions, wherever they might take him. What is poetic on the printed page becomes a dream when filmed.

The biggest change from play to screen is a change in the “party of the second part” in the eternal contract for Faust’s soul from the devil Mephistopheles to a decrepit old man known as the Moneylender. Rather than a suave Satanic seducer, the Moneylender is a wrinkled nuisance, sly but with degraded manners (when he’s warned not to defecate outside the Church, he decides to do his business inside). Although Faust does pursue a woman, believing that carnal love will fill the empty space in his soul when philosophy and drink have failed, his primary relationship in the movie is with the Moneylender, who acts as a fatalistic conscience. The Moneylender’s surprising bath scene, which makes you think that a nude scene from the Elephant Man might not have been so bad, is the movie’s boldest moment.

It has been noted that Sokoruv’s film favors earth tones, rich browns and shadowy greens, and looks like the works of an old Dutch Master; but it’s worth pointing out further that the image here is also frequently murky and smudged, like a Rembrandt before restoration. Sokoruv’s choice to forgo widescreen vistas for the outdated 4:3 aspect ratio makes Faust cramped and claustrophobic; even when we’re outdoors, the movie feels like it’s playing out in a dingy room at the top of the stairs, lit by sunlight coming through a filthy window. At times (seemingly at random) he adds a queasy distorting lens. My suspicion is that the film’s grimy look is meant to evoke the filthiness and decay of the medieval milieu—the events seem to take place at the height of the Black Death, and there are coffins, funerals, and corpses everywhere (the movie even starts with a shot of a cadaver penis).

Although the film moves slowly, it’s extremely dialogue-dense, philosophical, and challenging for non-German speakers unfamiliar with the source material, who may find themselves quickly left behind. While Sokurov’s Russian Ark was esoteric in its subject matter, it was clearly motivated by a desire to explore Russian culture and its relationship to the West. His Faust is hermetic at its core. Although Faust is officially part of a quadrilogy which also includes biopics of Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito, it’s unclear precisely what the director’s intended spin on the legend is, or why he lumped a fictional philosopher in with historical tyrants. He’s changed enough of Faust to make the story his own, but the film doesn’t explain the reasons for the alterations it makes; it doesn’t do a clear job justifying itself and explaining why we needed this skewed take on the legend. Perhaps there is no justification to be had, and none needed. Goethe began his second book of his “Faust” with a prologue in which he sang “Let Reason be the thrall of Magic, and let bold Phantasy appear/In all her freedom, all her glory.” That could be the ancient anthem of the weird aesthetic, and perhaps Sokurov is merely heeding its call.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[a] triumph of the weird… takes a flying leap into bizarritude.”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: RUSSIAN ARK (2002)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Aleksandr Sokurov

FEATURING: Sergey Dreyden, Aleksandr Sokurov

PLOT: In one take, a ghostlike figure wanders through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, watching re-enactments of Russian history and debating art and culture with a French aristocrat.

Still from Russian Ark (2002)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: As the longest unbroken take in the history of cinema, Russian Ark is somewhat experimental in form, and with its intermingling of various eras of Russian history inside the Hermitage museum, it is somewhat surreal in content. Viewed simply as tour de force filmmaking, it’s worth seeing for the curious and cultured, and a must-see for film school types. The film’s only drawback is that its high art, highly Russophilic preoccupations make it unavoidably stuffy at times, and risk limiting its appeal to the tea-and-crumpets (er, samovar-and-beluga?) crowd.

COMMENTS: Who is the main character of Russian Ark? Ghost? Amnesiac time traveler? Dreamer? Or just a metaphorical representative of the Russian spirit? The speaker through whose eyes we watch Russian Ark remembers some vague accident, but opens his eyes to see women in furs and feathered headdresses emerging from a carriage; accompanied by men in formal scarlet military uniforms, he judges their fashions to be from the 1800s. He’s swept along with the guests from a snowy courtyard through a wooden door; he eventually deduces he is the Winter Palace section of the Hermitage, the ancient home of the Czars that was turned into the world’s largest art museum. No can see or hear him until he encounters an older man in black, who is equally lost in time and space; this is the Marquis, who will be his companion through the rest of his odyssey through the Hermitage.

That journey involves the pair passing through the various rooms of the museum, some of which are occupied by today’s art patrons, and some by ghosts from prior ages, including Peter the Great, Anastasia, and Catherine the Great (who is looking for a chamberpot). Curiously, there is little focus on the individual works of art; the camera rarely gives the paintings and statuary more than a passing glance, instead maintaining a constant wide-angle view of each sprawling, packed chamber. We watch courtly episodes from history and eavesdrop on some conversations, but the meat of the movie are the conversations between the European Marquis and the modern Russian through whose eyes we see the museum. Some of their dialogue is absurd, but much of it is self-reflective hand-wringing over the state of Russian culture. Russians come off as having a bit of an inferiority complex towards Europe. The Marquis sneers that Russians are great copyists in the fine arts, but produce nothing original; all the great works in the museum come from the French, the Italians, or others. He is disdainful towards the Russian people, yet he is slowly won over by the final scene, a massive Czarist ball where he joins in a mazurka with the ghosts of past maidens. Overcome with nostalgia for the lovely aristocratic past, the Marquis decides to stay behind at the phantasmagorical ballet. His decision validates the Ark’s role in preserving Western culture, but the Russian chooses to go on without him, headed towards an unknown destiny. Although we get a few clues as to the man behind the point-of-view’s identity, it isn’t really important. Russian Ark‘s main character is actually the Hermitage.

Russian Ark was shot in a single 87-minute take with a digital camera that followed the characters through thirty-three rooms of the Winter Palace. The cast included over 2,000 extras, and a full orchestra, all of whom had to be costumed and choreographed. Rehearsals lasted for months before the shot was attempted. Depending on which source you believe, the take was flawlessly executed on either the third or the fourth attempt. (To make things slightly easier, the sound was recorded later). Only one day was allocated to actual filming.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening. ‘Russian Ark’ spins a daydream made of centuries.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Jenn, who insightfully suggested that it was “perhaps artsy instead of weird” but added “[i]t is super pretty and certainly unusual and dreamy.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)