Aleksandr Sokurov's newest film, Francofonia, is a schizophrenic misadventure in filmmaking. The lackluster attempt at weaving its several elements into a cohesive union is a failed effort, marked by poorly mixed sound, inexplicable cameos by historical figures, poor costume design, unusually bad editing choices/camera work and a muddled narrative arc that makes less sense at the end than it does at the beginning.
The film's focus is on the Louvre (and "focus" is a term used loosely here) and the lives of two men, one a French civil servant and the other a German military officer during the nascent World War II, and their efforts, amid the conflict, to preserve the works of art that resided in the museum. In the scenes set in the past, there are blatant anachronisms, such as a WWII-era German soldier chasing down a WWII-era French civilian in a park in modern-day France, or French school children dressed in period clothing except for 21st-century tennis shoes, or grand vistas of what we can only assume is supposed to be 1940s France during the occupation, complete with Luftwaffe warplanes flying in the foreground … but in the background haze, you can see modern skyscrapers. Whether this is meant as an artistic juxtaposition or not is unclear, and it doesn't matter. On the one hand, it's a terrible error; on the other hand, it's a ham-handed venture in the realm of artful criticism. In either case, it doesn't work.
There are moments when the director speaks to a random sea captain transporting precious art objects in a storm, but their communiqués are often cut off by the weather. Why we're being shown this is never explained, nor is the relationship between the two. The director speaks to Napoleon or other historical figures, breaking the fourth wall constantly. However, there's never a reason that's satisfying enough to explain why Sokurov is doing this, other than to offer some sort of commentary on imperialism and its relationship to art that gets lost in translation. At times, the narration goes something like, "The Louvre, the Louvre …" or, "France, France …," as if the director were speaking stream of consciousness into a digital recorder, unsure as to what he'll say next. While on the subject of sound, sometimes you can hear telephones ring in the background, or doors shut, or electric devices. It smacks of an amateurism that doesn't belong in the film and seems more like a lazy mistake than a focused decision.
Overall, Francofonia is a pretentious and fractured conglomeration of a film that seems to take itself entirely too seriously and offers little in the way of historical enlightenment or worthwhile criticism.