IC Lecture: Heather Jensen on Francofonia

Heather Jensen discussed the French and Russian film Francofonia at an International Cinema lecture.

800px-pavillon_de_flore_seine_parisPROVO, Utah (Nov. 29, 2016)—“Is the Louvre worth more than all of France?” asked Alexander Sokurov, Russian director of the 2015 documentary Francofonia. At a recent International Cinema lecture, associate professor of art history Heather Jensen, discussed the portrayal of the Louvre Museum in Sokurov’s latest film.

“Where would we be without museums, or more specifically, the Louvre?” Jensen asked. This question, Jensen said, is at the core of each thread of Sokurov’s documentary, from footage of regents going about their daily lives to the preservation of the Louvre and its artworks during the German occupation of France.

Jensen said that Sokurov compares the Louvre to an ark or a boat containing all of European culture. In the film, Sokurov features a conversation that takes place with a literal ship captain who is transporting a museum’s entire collection through rough waters.

“This modern-day boat that you see with this art cargo is being tossed about and becomes an important symbol, a metaphor for the vulnerability of art, which is raided and shuttled around the world,” Jensen said. “It’s traded, it’s handled, it’s put in storage, brought out of storage and it’s touched by people who shouldn’t touch it.”

Jensen explained that a museum represents the best and worst of humanity. Though it is a valuable conservatory of objects on the one hand, it is also a testament to the human desire for conquest on the other. In the case of the Louvre, Jensen said, sometimes we forget the cost of its prized acquisitions. As one critic of the film points out, the Louvre is founded on centuries of conquest, war and colonization.

“The Louvre is the child of the empire, the fragile ark of Europe,” Jensen said. “Even the Nazis, at least the gentlemen among them, understood that this was Europe, and that’s why it was protected.”

 Jensen pointed out that Francofonia is made up of antagonisms that Sarkurov seeks to reconcile at the end of the film. He switches back and forth between Napoleon and his quest for power to Lady Liberty, the popular icon of the French Revolution, who sees hope for the Republic embodied in the museum’s objects. In the same vein, antagonism is also portrayed between French curator Jacques Jaujard, the chief curator of the Louvre during the German occupation, and the German officer monitoring the Louvre’s artworks.

“While there are antagonisms, we see the existentialist brotherhood emerge between these pairs,” Jensen said. “By the end of the film, the two art experts and the two personifications of political ideals are quite friendly. There is friendship there. Art, it is suggested, transcends the political, it transcends the personal.”
Acknowledging the darker side of the Louvre’s history, however, Jensen also asked, “Is this museum worth more than France? Was it appropriate to lavish love and care and attention to these paintings and sculptures who were treated as precious cargo and ignore the preservation of human lives? The trains that took the art out of the Louvre and into the Loire Valley, should they have reserved that space for men and women and children?” 

Sarkurov’s film invites its audience to consider the dark history and complexity of museums and art acquisition, but its cinematographic portrayal is nevertheless an inspirational homage to the art and European culture – most especially the Louvre.

“One of the most captivating elements for me as an art historian is the focus on the artworks, the intensity of the camera’s gaze on some of these treasures. The cinematography as it relates to the Louvre and especially its art is astonishingly tender and loving,” Jensen concluded. “Every time I watch this film I fall in love with the Louvre all over again.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia covers events for the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.

Photo of the Louvre courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.