'National Gallery': Cannes Review

National Gallery Film Still - H 2014
Zipporah Films

National Gallery Film Still - H 2014

London’s house of Old Masters receives a comprehensive guided tour from one of documentary’s oldest masters.

Frederick Wiseman (“Public Housing,” “At Berkeley”) sets his sights on one of Great Britain’s most famous museums in this Cannes-selected documentary.

CANNES -- If a picture is worth a thousand words, then there are at least a million things worth talking about in National Gallery, 84-year-old documentary maestro Frederick Wiseman’s exhaustive portrait of one of the world’s most venerable art institutions. Less focused on the bureaucratic aspects of running a museum than on the handling, restoration and interpretation of the paintings themselves, this 3-hour crash course in art history -- with an emphasis on heavyweights Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Turner -- will most likely appeal to students and aficionados, while some niche theatrical bookings, especially in Europe, could follow a premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight.

With nearly forty features under his belt, many of them clocking in at close to three hours, Wiseman by now has his all-inclusive, fly-on-the-wall approach down pat, and here he weaves together dozens of characters and scenes chronicling the famous London-based establishment, which was originally founded in 1824 (with paintings purchased from profits made off the slave trade, as one scene points out). Yet unlike the director’s 2013 university profile At Berkeley, or classics like Public Housing and Domestic Violence, National Gallery feels closer to a pure aesthetic investigation than an organizational exposé, and in that respect is reminiscent of recent Paris-set films like Crazy Horse or La Danse, mostly allowing the art to speak for itself.

Which is not to say that this extensive visit -- filmed in 2011-2012 during major exhibitions for Titian, Leonardo Da Vinci and J.M.W. Turner (also the subject of Mike Leigh’s Cannes competition entry)  -- isn’t chock full of commentary, and the movie’s primary subjects are in fact the various tour guides and experts whose remarks help illuminate works that, for many, may seem either too old or too well-known to feel entirely new. But as one specialist points out, “Paintings change, and how you look at them changes as well,” and what’s most fascinating about Wiseman’s approach is the way it captures hidden or unfamiliar aspects of certain pieces, especially in scenes detailing the painstaking labor that goes into conserving the museum’s massive collection.

One such memorable sequence involves the meticulous cleaning of Rembrandt’s Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback, revealing much about the Dutch artist’s own work process, including a second painting that was concealed beneath the first one. Several scenes return to one of the Gallery’s prize pieces: Da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, covering everything from Leonardo’s painting technique to the way the canvas should be framed and exhibited. And Turner’s many seascapes, including The Fighting Temeraire, are also given special emphasis, underlying the artist’s brilliant use of color and light, as well as his fascination with ancient history.

While the excess of detail can sometimes feel like overkill -- a lengthy discussion about music in Jean-Antoine Watteau’s The Scale of Love is especially tedious and may only interest Rococo specialists -- the film changes up subjects enough to remain engaging, particularly when it chronicles the meticulous craft of preserving paintings from hundreds of years ago. Less convincing is Wiseman’s account of the museum’s various administrative struggles, which are captured in a few select boardroom sequences but otherwise take a back seat to all the classic art analysis.

In that sense, National Gallery sets itself apart from other portraits of famous European culture houses, such as Nicolas Philibert’s La Ville Louvre and Johannes Holzhausen’s Vienna-set The Great Museum -- both dialogue-less documentaries more concerned with the behind-the scenes action than the actual artwork. Here, Wiseman sets his sights on what is truly masterly about the Old Masters, demonstrating why places like the National Gallery exist in the first place, and why they should be cherished and maintained.

Tech credits are on par with the rest of the director’s oeuvre, with Wiseman himself handling editing and sound recording, and regular cinematographer John Davey providing crisp HD lensing. Terrific color correction helps to capture all the paintings in the best possible light.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)

Production companies: Gallery Film LLC, Ideale Audience

Director: Frederick Wiseman

Producers: Frederick Wiseman, Pierre-Olivier Bordet

Director of photography: John Davey

Editor: Frederick Wiseman

Sales Agent: Doc & Film International, Zipporah Films

No rating, 181 minutes