In 2002, the great Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov exploded into international prominence with a movie filmed inside one of the world's great art museums, using the collection and the physical space to mount an argument about the national identity and history of the country housing that museum. 13 years later, he did the same thing, though to walk into his 2015 docu-feature art film Francofonia expecting a re-do of Russian Ark is to set oneself up for great disappointment. They are different movies pursuing different ends - where Russian Ark takes a longitudinal view on Russian history over the centuries, Francofonia is concerned only with two brief periods in French history; Russian Ark is perhaps chiefly famous for taking place across a single feature-length take, while Francofonia uses digital editing techniques to combine small moments into blurry collages.

None of which is to say that Francofonia is a disappointment. Quite the opposite: it's an exhilarating intellectual exercise that packs a ludicrous amount of philosophy into 88 dense minutes, teasing out its ideas through a combination of pervasive voiceover, manipulation of classic artwork, historical re-enactments, and a whole lot of metanarrative. And if that sounds a bit too much like work - for let's be honest, when a film's selling point is "wow, wotta helluva intellectual exercise!" we're talking about something with a relatively small and self-selecting audience - it's laced through with a surprisingly wry sense of humor, as Sokurov prods himself and his project. It's maybe even the most fun movie in his directorial canon, though given the immodestly somber work preceding it, that takes no particular level of wit and whimsy to achieve.

The question "what is this film about?" lacks a terribly straightforward answer, but whatever it is, gets there via the Louvre. Here is the important history to know: on 10 May, 1940, the German army invaded France, facing only the most limited pushback. It took very little time for the army to make its way across the country, subduing villages and cities along the way, and on 12 June the French government declared Paris an open city, offering no resistance of any kind. On 14 June, the Germans arrived in Paris. One of the actions taken early on during the occupation of the city, as it was in all of the great cities of Europe that the Nazis acquired, was to strip all the art treasures that could be found and send them back to Germany, and that is where we arrive at our movie. The deputy head of the Louvre was a man named Jacques Jaujard, who had overseen an extensive mission collecting and hiding the museum's collection and as much of the public art in France as he could reach in the lead-up to war, and by the time the Germans arrived in Paris, the Louvre was effectively empty of anything valuable or important. The German officer in charge of Kunstschutz, the "art protection" program, was Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, never a member of the Nazi party, and over the course of the years that followed, he and Jaujard conspired to keep the remaining art in the Louvre as safe from Nazi control as possible. Insofar as Francofonia has a core, it's their story: Sokurov has imagined the relationship between Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath) as a battered, recovered movie from the '40s, played within Francofonia as an actual film strip with a visible optical soundtrack and all - a playful gesture in which the "old" cinema (analogue film) is mimicked and parodied by the "new" cinema (digital video). Even with the formal experiment that serves to remind us that we're watching a construction of a construction (to say nothing of how Sokurov breaks the dramatic reality of these scenes), the content is fascinating enough to act as something on a docudrama of those men and the value of preserving art. The documentary impression is strengthened by actual vintage footage, repurposed with revised soundtracks.

Expanding outward from there, Francofonia is also about the making of Francofonia, as we frequently return to Sokurov himself, grappling with his concerns that he's not up to the task of explaining his thoughts clearly enough, and that he's tried to bite off too much, while he Skypes with the captain of a freighter carrying precious artwork through a storm - to where and from where is never specified. But Sokurov is terrified that the art is in danger of destruction, and the Skype call's frequent distortion into digital noise, or dropping out altogether, puts something uncharacteristically like a thriller narrative into the picture.

Expanding in a different direction, Francofonia is an investigation into the idea of art museums and art preservation entirely. Coming from an unabashedly Eurocentric and Francophiliac perspective, Sokurov, who narrates extensively over images of the many iconic works featured in the Louvre, toys around with the idea that artistic preservation is how a culture has any sort of history at all, and that without a record of artwork, culture cannot, in an important sense, "exist" (leading to the one bum note in an otherwise exquisite feature: observing that Islamic art has no tradition of portraiture, Sokurov blithely implies that Islam doesn't "count" in a global sense; which, everything else notwithstanding, the history of mathematics might have something to say about that). There's the expected detour into the always-thorny question of Russian identity as something akin to Europe and separate from it, as the director darkly muses on the lack of care that the Germans extended to Russian art museums as they pressed east, showing the very same Hermitage that was the subject of Russian Ark, now reconceived as an incomplete half-measure at creating the same cultural identity that the Louvre provdies to the french. And moments after this interlude, Sokurov's narration pointedly includes the word "us" in talking about an expressly European perspective.

There's an extraordinary amount of content in all of this, raising questions of the value of art relative to a human life that Sokurov seems to shift his own thinking on as the movie progresses, above and beyond the wealth of musing on how having access to culture dictates identity and nationality. To be frank, I can't say on first pass (and it is a movie which, if you are on its wavelength at all, seems particularly well-designed for many viewings) if what Sokurov seems to have in mind is particularly coherent or philosophically valuable, but there's something utterly absorbing about the passion of it, plowing through Big Questions and trying to grapple with all of history and morality, and doing it all from a quintessentially Russian perspective even as the case study is exclusively and necessarily French.

What I do know is that even setting aside its robust intellectualism, there's a profound amount of pleasure to be gleaned from Francofonia simply as an object to be watched. It is an attempt to use cinematic techniques to engage with static art forms, which means to begin with that Sokurov and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (whose characteristic style leaves me entirely too hot and bothered to have anything like proper intellectual distance from his work here and throughout his career) frame familiar works of art from steep angles and unusual distances, meaning, for example, that we see the ubiquitous Mona Lisa as a distorted form made up of cracks in the ancient paint. Elsewhere, Sokurov does something - I assume it must involve digital post-production, but I really cannot say what's going on - where the flat plane of a painting seems to be "stretched" somehow, like there's a racking zoom (the "Vertigo shot") that pulls the background towards us while leaving the foreground alone. Which of course cannot be done with a painting. And that is the exact point: the way that paintings are filmed causes them to become unnatural, unfamiliar, and impossible, forcing us to reconsider how we look at them, how we read the language of composition.

Viewed purely as a documentary on the collection of the Louvre, filmed in these extreme ways, combining the classical with the ultra-modern in the form of digital cinematography, Francofonia would be entirely worth the effort even without the rest of its material. Delbonnel's digital cinematography, shot after-hours only with available light, casts a stately but cool patina over the Louvre, giving it an extraordinary sense of age and inhumanity - watching the film, especially as it progresses to older and older art pieces, is to be reminded that, for all the value of a museum in preserving culture for us to enjoy in the presence, it is also meant to preserve culture for the future - the collection is not ours, and we are going to be dead and gone just like the creators of this artwork, and the artwork itself will not care.

This cosmic long-view is treated with remarkable beauty that strips it of all morbidity. The film's best moment, in my mind, is a close-up of two hands: one human (Sokurov's?), gently stroking the marble fingers of a statue. While the flesh-and blood hand reaches out - trying to literally grasp the past and the long-dead sculptor, perhaps, hoping to find some real connection to the feeling, living humans of ancient history - the color slowly leaches out of the footage, till the flesh and marble hands are almost the same hue. It is a breathtaking moment, the purest kind of cinema, and the whole of Francofonia summed up in one image. I'm not sure what exactly the ratio of wisdom to bloviating here will end up being after I've revisited it a few times, but no film with that shot can be anything but profoundly valuable.