“Frederick Wiseman’s institutional analyses entered a new register in the mid ’90s with Ballet, wherein the institution’s involvement with the constructive and performative aspects of artistic endeavor came to the foreground,” begins Budd Wilkins at the House Next Door. “Performance was usually an element in Wiseman’s films, of course, from the rank-and-file formations in Basic Training to the catwalk struts in [The Store], and later films like At Berkeley have returned to the structural expose format, but Ballet puts the emphasis on creation and not routinization. National Gallery takes this development to the next logical step, using its titular establishment as a springboard for an all-encompassing exploration into the multifarious nature of art as both history and object. This is one of Wiseman’s richest and most thought-provoking films, and easily one of his best.”
“Wiseman turns his inquisitive lens on the employees, patrons and paintings in London’s National Gallery,” writes Time Out‘s Keith Uhlich. “Stylistically it keeps with Wiseman’s preference for showing, not telling. No explanatory titles. No talking-head interviews. Just of-the-moment action, observing as the viewing public wanders the galleries and the museum staff—restorers, tour guides, executives—goes about their business. Thematically, however, this is among Wiseman’s densest, and best, works—one that, after a profoundly emotional start, becomes a much stranger, slippery beast…. As the public becomes less of a focus and the inner workings of the museum take precedence, a fascinating subtext emerges about the elitist nature of the institution and, indeed, of many of the pieces in its collection.”
This “three-hour portrait is not only an immersive behind-the-scenes tour, highlighting the unseen work behind the hangings, but also an essay on the art of visual storytelling,” suggests Isabel Stevens, writing for Sight & Sound. “A comprehensive portrait of an entire institution this isn’t. The movie observes one discussion about government cuts and another concerning the museum’s association with other charities, and wanders around a private view (taking care to juxtapose waiters with air-kissing patrons) – but these moments aside, there’s little time devoted to the bureaucracy behind the exhibitions. We’re not privy to any debates about what exhibitions are put on or how, or what new works are to be acquired. Wiseman’s near-exclusive focus is on the paintings and how they are presented and interpreted to visitors.”
For the Hollywood Reporter‘s Jordan Mintzer, “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.”
“Of course,” adds the Guardian‘s Andrew Pulver, “there’s a fine line separating this sort of thing from an in-house corporate on the one hand, or the edited-for-maximum-drama docu-soap on the other. (Remember, it was one of the National Gallery’s sister institutions, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, that helped kick off the whole structured-reality thing with the TV series The House, in 1996.) Wiseman’s film, while hardly a polemic, distinguishes itself from these the unfussy plainness of its method: it’s neither propaganda nor melodrama, but a clear-sighted attempt to establish, with honesty, what working at the National Gallery is like—and that is its principal value.”
More viewing (11’51”). An onstage Q&A with Wiseman—in French.
Updates, 5/19: “As a brief talk on Holbein’s The Ambassadors will evince, perspective can reveal very different aspects within a single work,” notes Peter Labuza at the Film Stage. “This is both the wondrous revelation and, perhaps, the slight tragedy of National Gallery. Each work can communicate in a million different ways, so how could one institution create a unified voice for the public? It’s a tricky one that Wiseman navigates through his three-hour runtime.”
“A running theme—as one tour guide puts it—is the connection between ‘representation and the thing itself,'” notes Ben Kenigsberg at RogerEbert.com. “Late in the film, a lecturer notes that each time you revisit a particular Vermeer, it’s going to look slightly different. That’s a concept National Gallery ponders not just in theme but in form. Despite the fact that the museum houses a collection of more than 2,300 works, Wiseman periodically returns to the same paintings…. As National Gallery ponders the idea of immortality in arts—the finale specifically confronts viewers with the faces of Old Masters—it’s hard not to sense Wiseman reflecting on film preservation, as well as his own legacy as an essential image-maker.”
This is “a great, great film,” declares the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey. “It’s like being lulled with intelligence. However long it is since you last climbed the gallery’s steps, you’ll watch this truly inspiring piece of work and rue the interval.”
“As for where National Gallery fits into Wiseman’s significant oeuvre, it’s safe to say a bit below At Berkeley but above Crazy Horse, with the best parallels probably with his classical ballet films,” suggests Variety‘s Jay Weissberg.
Four out of five stars from Ed Frankl at CineVue.
Updates, 5/21: This is “a major highlight at Cannes” and Wiseman is “America’s greatest living filmmaker,” declares Daniel Kasman in the Notebook. “The correlation between the museum’s paintings and history of imagemaking and storytelling and that of cinema is direct, but the film’s copious range of explanations and contexts for the paintings on display—and how they are displayed and why, how they are restored and what the effect is—fully transform National Gallery into a richly contemporaneous essay on the curation, exhibition, reception, and preservation of culture in our time.”
Jordan Cronk for Reverse Shot: “Set-ups shift from simple medium shots of the artwork to exacting close-ups, from hushed confines to the sometimes bustling exteriors—some of Wiseman’s framings of the building’s interior architecture are even reminiscent of the work of structuralist filmmaker Heinz Emigholz in their imposing breadth and incremental detail. National Gallery, then, is less lecture (a charge against some of Wiseman’s recent work) and more discussion, among a multitude of voices both past and present.”
“Wiseman’s film is the most nourishing example of cinematic brain food you’ll have all year,” writes Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist.
Update, 5/23: Variety‘s Peter Debruge interviews Wiseman.