Published Jul 04, 2013Though Museum Hours is technically Jem Cohen's first narrative effort, having the backbone of a very slight storyline, it doesn't stray far from his previous non-fiction efforts, possessing the intimate feel of a diary and an acutely observant knack for appreciating subtleties and atmosphere.
The setting — Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Art Museum — is the main character, as narrated by Johann (Robert Sommer), a museum guard that watches and assesses those that pass through, bringing their histories and motivations to a place lined with works from around the world with an ever-shifting cultural context.
A chance meeting between Johann and Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), a Canadian in Austria to settle up the affairs of a dying cousin, forces the story outside of his head when he extends his company, sensing her discomfort and feelings of isolation. Having a similar sense of alienation and curiosity about his surroundings, they bond over career paths and musical choices, discussing who they were and now are, sharing stories of loss — Robert's lover died years prior — and disappointment.
These candid conversations are framed by the majestic architecture of the Kunsthistorisches and its surroundings, whether coffee shops, modern asphalt jungles or the hospital where Anne's cousin lives out her last days. But this unlikely bond and almost incidental, albeit thematically appropriate, connection is only one aspect of Museum Hours. Beyond the Mindmaze or Before Sunrise discussions are the many voiceovers where Robert discusses the various types of people that enter the gallery, whether they self-consciously look around to see how to behave or pull out cellphones, bored by, and uninterested in, the history of the art lining the walls around them.
The transience plays as a sort of protagonist, with the guard being in the middle of it all, mostly ignored, asked for bathroom directions and contemplating the perspectives of those that pass through his life and the museum. He considers the assertion by one ex-colleague — a young art student and self-professed punk — who sees the museum as a joke, a commodity glorifying Dutch still-life work created to capture decadence; pieces he asserts that are the equivalent of a modern day picture of a big screen TV or a pile of jewellery.
Examinations of perspectives and the notion that the works on display — some of which sold for obscene amounts of money, while others remained unnoticed in their time — have a transformative sense, meaning something different to those in different times and places, are as much the focus as the characters.
There's even an extended diversion with a museum guide discussing the influence and interpretation of the works of Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel, asserting beliefs about his intentions while capturing the peasant life and landscape in 16th Century Netherlands, noting that no one person is the focus, even in depictions of The New Testament, where Jesus is a background figure. Her tour group rejects her subversive, but schooled, interpretation, having more of a literal response to the titles and images, which in turn leads to a defensive, almost patronizing reaction, thus reinforcing some of the central themes of art as an individual experience made fluid by time and space.
Cohen doesn't allow his film to cohere into a single idea, whether architectural worship or the fleeting nature of life and memory. It's a discussion piece that's as much a testament to fine art as it is a languid, contemplative effort of ideas, inspiring the audience to consider how they interpret and appreciate their space and the history behind it. (Films We Like)