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Museums on Film

By Max Nelson on June 22, 2013 in Film Comment Featured

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A warm, sensitive reflection on the relationship between art and life, Jem Cohen’s new film Museum Hours takes place in and around Vienna’s massive Kunsthistorisches Museum, home to a world-famous Brueghel collection. Below, FILM COMMENT looks back at five notable on-screen museum visits—featuring, among other things, a quarrel over Braque, a mysterious pair of spiral buns, and a hot pursuit through La Grande Jatte. Tell us your own favorite museum scenes in the comments section.

Voyage to Italy

Voyage to Italy (1954)

Roberto Rossellini’s tale of an English couple drifting painfully apart over the course of a single Italian holiday found the director torn between two conflicting obligations: to stay faithful to the limits of an imperfect, often unsatisfying world, and to allow for miracles that transgress those same limits. In one late-film scene, he suggests a possible solution: Ingrid Bergman’s heroine wanders through a gallery of ancient sculptures, all of which convince her that she, by comparison, isn’t long for this world—but that some things are. Just as the movie’s overwhelming last scene proposes a love miraculously compatible with human weakness, this sequence proposes a kind of immortality miraculously compatible with the reality of death.

Vertigo Hitchock

Vertigo (1958)

Like good detectives, we start with the facts: a beautiful young woman has the same spiral-shaped hairdo featured in a 19th-century portrait of one of her ancestors; every day, she brings a bouquet of flowers—just like those in the painting—to the museum and sits silently staring down her double, whom she really does resemble… It could all be a coincidence, but the music, the rhythm of Hitch’s cuts, and the look on Jimmy Stewart’s face suggest that it’s not a coincidence, that there are no coincidences here—not even the young woman’s Proust-inspired name (Madeleine), which suggests that she functions for Stewart like we assume that painting functions for her: as a kind of memory, the past brought into tantalizing clarity but always kept just out of reach.

Elegy of a Voyage

Elegy of a Voyage (2001)

A year before making his single-take marvel Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov filmed this hushed, mist-drenched short centered around Rotterdam’s cavernous Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Elegy shares with Museum Hours its wistful tone and fascination with Breughel the Elder, but none of the latter film’s sense of humor. Gravely ruminative, Sokurov’s film constantly declares its status as High Art, but when it has you on its wavelength, it casts an undeniable spell. For best results, watch half-asleep on a stormy winter night.

Looney Tunes: Back in Action

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)

I confess that I barely remember the rest of Looney Tunes: Back in Action, which I saw when I was 10. I have fond memories of this scene, though: a mini-art-history lesson that introduced me to the phrase “pointillism” and was probably my first exposure to The Scream. I still laugh at Elmer Fudd’s bashful “oh, my” when a chorus-girled-up Bugs kicks him in the seat of his pants.

The Deep Blue Sea Tom Hiddleston

The Deep Blue Sea (2012)

Terence Davies has created some of the movies’ most indelible images of loneliness: The House of Mirth’s doomed young heroine hemmed in by shams, curtains and lace; the family from Distant Voices, Still Lives vanishing into a darkened street to the strains of “The Water Is Wide”; the adolescent hero of The Long Day Closes sitting with rapt attention in an old movie palace, arms folded over the edge of the top-floor balcony. In this sequence from The Deep Blue Sea, Davies shows himself equally sensitive to the challenges of living with others: Rachel Weisz’s restless, cultivated housewife and the ex-RAF-pilot (Tom Hiddleston) she loves visit a museum, where a drop-of-a-pin fight leaves each more alone than ever.

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