Since I have a bachelor’s degree in film and television studies, I can say with some authority that Alexander Sokurov’s Francofonia is, perhaps, the perfect artifact for the consumption of formally educated media consumers (and those seeking to become one). It stands so firmly at the intersection of all the forms and metanarratives that tickle the soft underbelly of the academian brain, so that one would be harder pressed to manufacture something superior. I imagine that, decades from now, many term papers or theses will be written dissecting Francofonia, contextualizing Francofonia, meditating on Francofonia. Francofonia is exceptionally meta-interesting – most of all, perhaps, because it manages to be so meta-interesting without being terribly interesting to actually watch.
The temptation, therefore, to meta-review Francofonia is strong. The temptation is doubly strong because, like, didn’t I just say above that I have a degree in overthinking movies? And, see, right there, I meta-reviewed it, I’ve only actually said a fraction of a sentence about the actual experience of watching this movie. Not that film should be evaluated wholly as an experiential medium, nor is it entirely clear that there is a more obvious or objective way of doing it, other than evaluating a film comprehensively, including the sea metanarratives on which it sails. On the other hand, is pontificating on the tides just a way to avoid talking about the boat, especially if it’s leaky?
What even is Francofonia? It’s not a documentary, but nor is any of it fictional. It’s something of a cinematic essay, a collage of documentary footage, manufactured footage, and a omnipresent voiceover narrative by the director himself, weaving the personal, the artistic, and the political into something meditative, something complex and difficult to penetrate, something genuinely unique and hard to summarize. The inclination to compare it to Sokurov’s 2002 Russian Ark, another genre-defying film set in a museum, is obvious but misleading: whereas Russian Ark was vivacious and bouyant in both execution and imagination, Francofonia is frequently grim and almost always introverted. In a sense, that’s the point – Francofonia is in some sense fundamentally about Sokurov himself, yet another obstacle to a path to engaging with the film that isn’t meta-textual.
Sokurov’s tense relationship with his country and its increasingly-authoritarian political establishment is the broader context. Without it, this inward-looking film about the intersection of authoritarian-fueled war and art cannot be understood, but if it cannot be understood without it, what is the value of the film to those who do not have it? The greatest films are mirror images of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: they activate, engage, and challenge each the emotional, intellectual, personal, and the spiritual, weaving them together so there are rewards each time one watches it. There are, perhaps, a million different ways of watching Vertigo, 2001: A Space Odyssey, No Country for Old Men. No method is complete, no method is superior to any other, each offering their own rewards and challenges. But each of those films has a transfixing power, a grip on not just the mind but the spine, a sensational/emotional experience that comprises part of a feedback loop with “higher-order” elements and unique meta-narratives. If Francofonia succeeds at being nothing more than an object of exceptional academic and critical curiosity, it may have achieved more than most – but it won’t move more than a few.