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Cannes Review: Frederick Wiseman's Heady, Nourishing Art Doc 'National Gallery'

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by Oliver Lyttelton
May 19, 2014 3:42 PM
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National Gallery

Frederick Wiseman has always been interested, above and beyond anything else, in institutions. The veteran documentarian has, in his nearly 50-year career, pointed his lens at all kinds of social microcosms, from ballet companies and strip clubs, to high schools and the state legislature. Now, hot on the heels of last year's masterpiece "At Berkeley," Wiseman is taking a look at the art world with his latest, "National Gallery."

After being turned down by the Met in New York, Wiseman went across the pond and shot in and around the titular National Gallery in London. Located in the famous Trafalgar Square and established in 1824, it plays host to a positive treasure trove of paintings, from pre-Renaissance to the 19th century (leaving more contemporary fare to the Tate galleries). In 2012, during the lengthy post-production on "At Berkeley," Wiseman was granted his usually comprehensive access to the National, and the result is another lengthy epic (three hours, this time) examining almost every facet of the organisation.

In places, the film seems like it'll be a companion piece to "At Berkeley," examining another publicly funded institution trying to find a way to survive in the modern world in the face of cuts, in particular in the engaging scenes where the gallery's head honcho, Nicholas Penny, debates with his team as to whether to allow the gallery's facade to be taken over for a nationally-televised marathon: it would mean huge exposure, but at what cost? There's an amusing snobbishness to these scenes, particularly Penny's sniffy references to a previous team-up with Harry Potter.

As it turns out, Wiseman isn't actually all that interested in the backroom dealings this time out. Indeed, he's not all that interested in the people in general: the focus here is very much on the art itself, as much of the film is made up of mini-lectures from the gallery's employees and experts, with the last hour consisting of almost nothing but. The result is that the film is even more free of narrative than usual ("At Berkeley" built towards a student protest in its final quarter), but you wouldn't want it any other way.

And that's because the film is so stuffed with information. From gold-leafing a picture frame to painting restoration to close analysis of a number of artworks (including, in an accidental nod to another Cannes picture, Turner's "The Fighting Temeraire"), the film serves as a primer on Old Master art history, and scarcely a scene or shot goes by, even the ones without speech, in which you don't learn something (even if this is your specialist subject, you're bound to find some nuggets of knowledge, given that Wiseman has captured some of the world's greatest experts on the area).

But more than anything, it's a film about art, about its power, its multi-faceted nature, and the legacies it can create (there's a fascinating moment as a tour guide admits to a group of multicultural schoolkids that the foundation of the Gallery was funded in part because of the slave trade). And by the same token, it's a film about time and the mark we can leave on the world. That said, we have to say that this is on case where Wiseman's aversion to providing any kind of context might hurt the film rather than help: those not already experts won't necessarily be able to identify the artists or paintings on sight, and relatively few of those on camera introduce what they're talking about. But that's not really the point: you pick up more than enough to make it through, and Wiseman's film is the most nourishing example of cinematic brain food you'll have all year. [B+]

Browse through all our coverage of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival by clicking here.

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