American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Jean-Paul Sartre's play “No Exit” premiered in May 1944, while his beloved Paris was under Nazi occupation. To skirt the occupiers’ curfews, the play is just one act, in which three characters find themselves in a very different version of hell than they expected. Each character watches the events following their death in the world they left behind, observing his or her memory blink out on earth, as those who knew them gradually forget. They’d died once, deceased and mourned, but now they’re truly dead—as if they'd never existed.
While Sartre wrote plays and books and argued with his circle of buddies at Le Dôme Café in occupied Paris, a great deal of human culture was in danger of both kinds of death. After all, if London can be bombed, so can Paris—home of the Louvre, the massive treasure trove of culture from Europe, Greece, Rome, and the ancient Near East. That weight of history and the danger we all narrowly escaped when Paris was occupied is Alexander Sokurov’s main interest in “Francofonia”—even more than the beauty contained in the Louvre, upon which any filmmaker would be excused for fixating.
Sokurov’s 2002 film “Russian Ark,” shot in one 96-minute Steadicam sequence, was similarly interested in the history of the Winter Palace (now part of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum) and so it collapsed its long-past events and characters into one continuous take of the building. For “Francofonia,” Sokurov returns to the art museum, but perhaps taking a cue from its Parisian setting, this film wanders like a flâneur between past and present, traversing space and history, crossing from fiction to nonfiction and back. The Louvre is both a warehouse for culture—including the spoils of war—and an artifact of its own long history, and that’s the subject of reverence: a record of humankind’s efforts to imprint itself upon time. So Sokurov takes a similar approach. He treats the screen like a canvas, splitting it in half, playing with shadows and colors on old photographs, gliding along the long Louvre hallways, changing film stock and color gradations, dropping representation out altogether to let colors fade into one another.
As World War II loomed, many of the paintings were removed from the Louvre and squirreled away in various châteaux, far from likely sites of destruction and out of the reach of roving bands of Nazi soldiers. The empty frames and sculptures were all that remained. Sokurov shows photos to us of that strange empty Louvre—or perhaps depicts what it would have looked like; it’s hard to tell when the image on screen is an original and when it’s a recreation, created since (as he points out) archival footage and photographs “can conceal the improper behavior of power and people.” In footage from that time, everyone looks happy. The real story is in what we can't see.