In his 39th documentary, Frederick Wiseman applies his considerable cinematic skills to interpreting art with a three-hour trip through one of the world’s great museums. National Gallery plays Friday, Dec. 19, at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. It’s an exhausting and exhilarating excursion. Opening this weekend is Force Majeure, a domestic drama about a Swedish family’s ski trip.
Throughout Wiseman’s career, this master of cinema vérité or observational film (terms he avoids) has used the camera to explore the nature of institutions. One of the earliest films of the Boston-born lawyer turned filmmaker, Titicut Follies (1967), portrayed Bridgewater State Hospital patients in such graphic detail that it was banned in Massachusetts. More recent films include Boxing Gym, Crazy Horse, and At Berkeley.
Now 84 years old, Mr. Wiseman opens National Gallery with a Rembrandt painting, then moves outdoors to a shot of the lions that grace the entrance to the world-famous London museum. A cinematic anatomy of the National Gallery follows, alternating cleaning staff, viewers, docent lectures, administrative meetings, and conservators at work with shots of individual pieces in the collection.
These cinematic images are selected with such care that the film audience can absorb far more than any three-hour excursion through the museum would offer. Mr. Wiseman taps all of the devices that film uses to communicate — cuts, montage (editing), close-ups, establishing shots, to name a few. The soundtrack is the one exception, with the filmmaker relying entirely on the natural sounds and dialogue occurring as the camera moves through the museum exploring its many facets as an institution.
Administrators debate how or whether to market the museum in ways that will draw a wider and different audience. Docents trained in art history talk about the symbolism of a distorted skull in a 16th century Hans Holbein painting and the background behind the 18th century painter George Stubbs’s choice of horses as a subject. The camera looks in on several live-model classes of artists drawing nudes. A group of blind visitors is given Braille-like reproductions of a painting to study and discuss. Museum staff explain the care that goes into hanging paintings in a new exhibit and the way paintings “talk” to one another.
If the film’s length seems taxing, National Gallery presents the audience with as much richness as an entire course in art appreciation. Not to be forgotten is the way Mr. Wiseman animates an essentially static subject through the many cinematic techniques at his command. He reinforces that message in the closing sequences by showing how other art forms, including video, poetry, music, and dance interact with art. And last but not least comes the capacity of film to find inspiration in an art museum.
Avalanche rules Force Majeure
A family on a ski vacation in France provides Swedish director Ruben Ostlund with the opportunity to poke fun at marital trials and tribulations in Force Majeure. The term in the title is a legal one. A little like “act of God,” force majeure is a contract clause that frees the parties from liability for an unavoidable accident. The force majeure in the film is an avalanche.
Tomas is taking time off from a demanding job to spend time with his wife, Ebba, and two children, Harry and Vera. A family-portrait photo op on the slopes opens the film and signals what the subject will be. Soon after, the camera watches Harry from behind as he pees into a bathroom waterfall, suggesting that the mood will be comic. After the scene has been set, day two of this Scandinavian vacation finds the family about to eat lunch on a deck overlooking the slopes. A massive avalanche arrives, looking as if it will bury everyone, and Tomas abandons his family to seek safety inside.
More than a little irritated with her husband’s cowardice, Ebba recounts to friends over dinner what happened. Tomas claims he saw events quite differently from his wife. The avalanche frames the battle of the sexes that follows and incorporates the two children.
Mr. Ostlund captures life at a ski resort and domestic strife with style and sophistication. He peppers the story with an understated humor that perhaps epitomizes a Swedish take on family life. If Force Majeure doesn’t inspire belly laughs, it does offer plenty of chuckles.
“National Gallery,” Friday, Dec. 19, 4 pm.
“Force Majeure,” Friday, Dec. 19, and Saturday, Dec. 20, 7:30 pm; Sunday, Dec. 21, 4 pm.