Directed by: Jem Cohen.
Written by: Jem Cohen.
Starring: Mary Margaret O'Hara (Anne), Bobby Sommer (Johann), Ela Piplits (Gerda Pachner).
I have to admit, I’m somewhat at a loss when it comes to trying to review Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours. I cannot think of another film quite like it. It is part art history lesson, part travelogue, part a story of an unlikely friendship, part rumination on death, and part philosophical rambling. The film is beautiful to look at, and for some may be a profound rumination on art, and what it all means. The film has already been a huge critical hit – but the whole thing left me rather cold.
The film takes place in and around the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a security guard there – perhaps the last stop on his career path that also included managing rock bands and teaching woodworking. The voice we hear most often in the film is Johann’s – mainly in voiceover, and he tells stories about his job – his co-workers and the many people who come through the museum. He is bemused and philosophical – he’ll tell you what he thinks of the masterpieces that hang on the walls of the museum by Rembrandt, and especially Bruegel, who is a favorite of his, and the movies. It is in the museum that he meets Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) for the first time. She’s a Canadian woman, who we first see on the phone asking to borrow money so she can travel to Vienna to sit by the sickbed of a distant cousin who has fallen into a coma. Why did Anne feel the need to visit this cousin for the first time ever now? And who is she asking for money? We never really find out.
Johann and Anne develop a friendship through their interactions at the museum – he’ll eventually act as her translator in dealing with the doctors, and her tour guide – through the museum, yes, but also through some of the sites – both tourist traps and not – in and around Vienna. The friendship never develops into a sexual relationship as we might think – Johann is gay after all – but their connection certainly runs deep, and there is real intimacy between them. This speaks volumes about the two performances by non-professionals O’Hara and Sommer – as the film doesn’t often give them too much to say to each other. We feel the connection between them, more than hear it.
The movie is often very quiet, as is fitting for a movie set in a museum. Cohen’s camera often takes in the artwork much like a patron of the museum would – at eye level, lingering over the details. In perhaps the film’s best scene – or least my favorite – an art historian tries to explain the different symbols and meanings in one of Brueghel’s paintings to skeptical tourists – who do not quite believe her when she tells them that just because the painting is entitled “Conversion of St. Paul”, that St. Paul may not actually be the focus of the painting. Cohen’s camera makes it clear what side of the debate he’s on.
Museum Hours is an interesting movie – I liked Cohen’s camerawork quite a bit, and there is always something interesting to look at or listen to. Does the film add up to all that much? I’m not entirely sure – I didn’t think so when I was watching it, as the structure of the film often felt random. As I think back over the film though, the pieces start to fall into place. I’m still not quite sure what it all means, or even if I liked it very much – but I’m glad I saw the film. For some, it will be a masterpiece, as exciting as going to the art museum itself – for others, it will be as dull as going to art museum itself. You know which one you are, right?