During the recent bankruptcy proceedings for the city of Detroit, the Detroit Institute of Arts was threatened with the sale of some of its art. During World War II, the art at the Louvre Museum in Paris also was threatened, by the approaching German army, as shown in the new movie Francofonia, which I saw at the Detroit Film Theatre at the DIA on Sunday, June 19, 2016.
Francofonia told this historical story as part of a creatively wide-ranging film essay on the emotional ties that Parisians and art lovers have with the Louvre, whose holdings include the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.
Before I saw the 4:30 p.m. screening of Francofonia, I took a quiet stroll through the DIA. I tried to take in the whole DIA experience, with visits to galleries of paintings, sculptures, and fine metalwork.
I also visited a gallery that combined one of the DIA’s most permanent exhibits (the Diego Rivera murals) with one of the museum’s most temporary exhibits—a performance of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival.
In the Rivera Court, I listened to two performances of “contemporary music,” which earned its description with many abrupt changes in tempo, tone, and melody. But I tried to understand the intentions of the composers and musicians, as I connected with many emotionally satisfying chords and chord changes. I noticed Detroit Free Press music writer Mark Stryker wandering around the audience, which gave the music another vote of confidence.
Soon I noticed that this music was being played against a background of visual art that was similar to the music. The background was the wall of the Rivera Court that depicts the interior of the Rouge River plant in Dearborn.
On that wall, you see the complex inter-workings of the machinery; the cultural clash between the well-dressed visitors and the anonymous, rough-looking factory workers; and the juxtaposition of the mechanical processes of the factory and the natural processes depicted at the top of the wall.
The combination of the music and the murals reminded me that the creative processes of many artists are driven by an exploration of the harmonies and dissonances in complexity.
I had similar feelings a little while later at the DFT while watching Francofonia. The general consensus of the reviewers of the movie is that it is creative and challenging, but also confusing.
The film was directed by the Russian Alexander Sokurov, whose movies include the technically and artistically powerful Russian Ark. This single-take exploration of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia first played at the DFT in January 2003 and returned in January 2014 as part of the DFT’s 40th anniversary celebration.
Francofonia is one of those movies that works better in memory than in the experience of watching it. Like some other art films, parts of Francofonia made me thankful for the wisdom of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” story that I first heard as a child. The sparse, hesitant applause at the end of the movie confirmed that others in the audience probably felt the same way.
But a day later, I can recall many powerful images that will stay with me—newsreel footage of Germans in Paris during World War II; the sincerity and seriousness of those who saved many artworks in the Louvre during World War II; a stunning circular camera shot of Paris from a rooftop; the monologues of a ghostly Napoleon wandering the galleries of the Louvre; and most of all, the overwhelming grandeur of the exterior architecture of the Louvre.
Francofonia was the first film in a DFT series of movies related to the DIA exhibition of the on-loan painting Gallery of the Louvre, by Samuel F.B. Morse (of Morse Code fame). Like Francofonia, Gallery of the Louvre takes an imaginary view of the Louvre to show its significance in art, history, and culture.
Other movies in the series include Russian Ark (July 2), Summer Hours (July 23), and The New Rijksmuseum (August 6).
Copyright © 2016 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.