We are living in dangerous times, for art as well as for people. During such disquieting days, it’s useful to remember that we have lived through similar eras. Unlike ISIS and other art-hating fanatics, the Nazis appreciated some art enough to steal as much as they could from every country they invaded. The Russian director Alexander Sokurov seems to love art too, and more than that, he loves the institutions that house and protect it. “Francofonia” is Sokurov’s marvelous film poem on the nexus of war, civilization, and museums.
Against the backdrop of the Louvre Museum’s history and artworks, Sokurov combines newsreel footage, reenactments, cinema stills, and an ocean voyage to tell the astonishing story of historical figures Jacques Jaujard and Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich and their compulsory collaboration at the Louvre under the Nazi Occupation. Entrusted by Hitler to supervise France’s art collection for the Nazis, Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath) arrives to find the Louvre mostly empty. The museum director, Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), has already dispersed artworks to chateaux around the country to protect them from deportation. An art historian and connoisseur, Wolff-Metternich ends up helping to preserve and protect the Louvre’s treasures.
Although it tells this real-life story, “Francofonia” is much more than a straightforward historical documentary. Sokurov puts himself in the film along with Napoleon Bonaparte and the scantily dressed symbol of republican France, Marianne. We see great pieces of art being wrapped and prepared for transport, and we follow a cargo ship carrying artworks over a storm-tossed ocean. From his study, Sokurov stays in contact with the ship’s captain, encouraging him on his journey, a symbol for the perilous journey of civilization itself.
Jaujard is a bureaucrat, and part of his challenge is to protect his country’s artistic heritage from his own collaborationist government as well as the conquerors. Sokurov uses devastating newsreel footage to contrast Leningrad’s fierce resistance–and the loss of so much of its art–to Paris’s quick capitulation. Though the director makes us think about the terrible suffering the Russians endured to defeat the Nazis, this is not a bitter or recriminative film. On the contrary, Sokurov approaches all the disparate characters with generosity. He expressed his love of museums in another of his films, “Russian Ark,” which he shot entirely in the Hermitage. These institutions are the repositories of the best of humanity’s achievements, he seems to say. “Francofonia” is a fabulous hodge podge of nonfiction and fiction elements, much the way the Louvre or the Hermitage are grand collections of objects, some related, some not.
Deneuve Is Still Standing Tall
Catherine Deneuve continues to be super busy, showing up in almost every other French movie produced. At least, it seems that way to me. A good actress in a limited range, she exudes an earthier beauty these days. She still looks great but not weirdly great, if you know what I mean. She looks like the handsome French woman of a certain age that she is.
In “Standing Tall,” Deneuve plays an exceptionally patient administrative judge responsible for a young delinquent. Malony. Despite avidly watching three seasons of “Spiral,” a terrific French police series, I still haven’t figured out how the French judicial system works. Their judges do a lot more than judge; they also serve as investigators. In this movie, juvenile judge Deneuve has in her caseload a bunch of at-risk kids and families. She first meets Malony when he is a little boy, living with his drug-addicted mother and baby brother. The young woman is a mess, screaming at the judge that she cannot handle two kids, while Malony looks on with trepidation.
The next time we meet Malony, he is a snarling teenager with a habit of hijacking cars. Deneuve still has his case, but now she is joined by his caseworker Yann, another saintly public servant. They manage to get him into some rehabilitative program on a farm but he keeps screwing up.
Writer-director Emmanuelle Bercot hasn’t sentimentalized Malony–he’s a creep. Ignorant, brutal, violent, and abusive, he rapes a girl, who promptly falls in love with him. Rod Paradot, who plays the boy, has a face that can look sweet then turn quickly vicious. His mother (Sara Forestier) is a total loss, and there are hints of seduction. Of course, he loves her desperately.
The film follows Malony through a string of misadventures, including becoming a father. At this point, the judge is ready to retire, but there is nothing to suggest that anything good will happen to her charge. He is well on the way to becoming a male version of his mother. Pretty depressing.
Bercot has made an excellent recruiting film for France’s child-welfare system. Whether that’s the same as a good movie, I’m not sure. It got a ton of Cesar award nominations, so someone liked it a lot.
Hold On, Darling
Kenneth Lonergan is a terrific playwright and screenwriter with an exceptionally good ear for the way people talk. I got a chance to see his newest play, “Hold on to Me, Darling,” last night, and it was three hours of amazing talk–funny, revealing, duplicitous, both self-aware and unaware. The play’s structure is not as successful as the dialogue, but it’s so much fun to listen to his characters that a last scene appearing out of nowhere can be forgiven. Lonergan is also very lucky with his cast, which is uniformly excellent. Timothy Olyphant (“Justified,” “Deadwood”) plays Strings McCrane, a country-and-western megastar who is plunged into an emotional maelstrom by the death of his difficult mother. Adelaide Clemens plays his distant cousin Essie, who loved his mother perhaps more than he did. Fans of the wonderful TV series “Rectify,” will recognize Clemens, who is from Australia. Just as it is on the series, her Southern accent is so spot on, it’s hard to believe she’s from another continent.
“Hold on to Me, Darling” does not break new ground in the examination of our bizarre celebrity culture. We have been talking about this for a long time, but rarely is the talk this entertaining.