As one observes the fine details of a painting, writer/director Jem Cohen studies everyday Vienna and the core friendship of his latest feature, Museum Hours, with a pleasant sense of naturalism. Set predominantly in the beautiful Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, equipped with a grand collection of priceless works, Cohen offers an intriguing perspective on an environment where humans surrender themselves to the transformative power of art and search for personal meaning. This heartwarming tale follows two strangers from different cultures that connect through their shared isolation and respective opinions, which in-turn assist their individual dramas.
We are introduced to a middle-aged museum guard named Johann (Robert Sommer), a kind, polite and soft-spoken gentleman, who narrates intermittently throughout. He reveals some of his fascinating experiences. He talks about his daily rounds, the regularity of questions about mundane things like toilet locations, and how his studies of the artworks often reveal something new each time. To the guests he is practically invisible – and the way that Cohen (who also shoots and edits this film) captures the various museum guests, it appears that he is invisible too – fading into the architecture and lingering around the lecture tours.
It is in the museum that Rohann meets Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a similarly aged Canadian in town to be by the bedside of her severely ill cousin. She is weary and emotional and takes pleasure in the serenity of looking at the art. Lost and frustrated she asks Rohann for directions, having no knowledge of the city and very little money, and he decides to offer his assistance and keep her company. Though Rohann is a local, he reveals that escorting Anne around the city has truly opened his eyes to what it offers. Considering most of his time is spent alone in the museum, he welcomes this newfound companionship and relishes their engaging conversations. These are captured by Cohen in lengthy single takes and at times only Rohann or Anne are in shot, the other conversing from outside the frame.
Museum Hours is interesting in that it sets up a parallel between modern-day Vienna and the details of the paintings, especially Pieter Breughel’s extraordinarily detailed ‘documentary-like’ captures of the peasant realities of 16th Century Flemish Renaissance. The banalities of gallery security seem welcoming with Breughel lining the walls. You cling to every word spoken about this Dutchman, and we are privileged to be included in a lengthy museum lecture at the midway point, which offers a critique of some of his works. Cohen has taken his camera to the streets and filmed the vibrancy of everyday life, with particular attention given to the poorer regions of the city and the architecture. This is clearly from the perspective of an acute observer who has chosen every shot carefully. What we see relates to the discussions on Breughel about how society is echoed in art and how our appreciation of art can influence how we live day-to-day.
While the film’s length could have been tightened a little – there is a sleepy serenity about the second half that flirts with tedium - this is a study of a city and it’s people at the leisurely pace of strolling through a museum and taking in the wonders of the art. It was a pleasant and endlessly fascinating film that effortlessly engages one in everything seen and heard.
[rating=3] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22