The intersection of art and life lies at the center of Jem Cohen’s lapidary film, a highly ruminative piece that takes what might have been the plot of a romantic dramedy—the relationship between a Canadian woman visiting Vienna and a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum—and uses it instead to comment, at times rather too bluntly but mostly with agreeable subtlety, on how every detail of human existence, even the most ostensibly banal, is part of the same pattern that constitutes man’s greatest artistic accomplishments. Whether you find the result tedious or enlightening will be a factor of your own openness to the director’s languidly atmospheric approach.
Driven more by mood rather than plot, “Museum Hours” opens with guard Johann (solemnly expressive Bobby Sommer) watching the disparate visitors to the exhibitions and describing in voiceover his attitude toward his job, his life, and the artifacts he’s there to protect. His tone is contemplative, wistful, and wry, but also appreciative of the beauties around him—most notably the room given over to the collection of earthy, vibrant portraits of peasant life by Pieter Breughel. What passes for narrative begins with the introduction of Janet (slightly frumpish Mary Margaret O’Hara), a plain middle-aged Canadian woman who strikes up a conversation with the man and inquires about directions to a local hospital where, she reveals after a bit, a cousin she hasn’t seen for a considerable time is a patient. It turns out that the woman is in a coma and Janet isn’t very well-heeled, eking out a living on odd jobs back home.
Johann, who will eventually explain that he doesn’t have many friends and spends a good deal of his free time playing Internet poker, decides to act as a budget tour-guide for Janet, showing her parts of the city that are interesting but off the beaten path (and inexpensive). And he patiently answers the questions she raises about what she’s observed on her solitary excursions through the city. He also accompanies her on some of her visits to the hospital, serving as translator in conversations with the doctors and joining Janet in talking to the comatose woman as a potentially therapeutic measure, describing, in his quiet way, some of his favorite paintings in the museum. In the process we get to know both people better—especially Johann, who reveals a rather incongruous past as a part of the pop music scene.
But while this personal side of the story has some charm, the real focus is on the museum, both the masterpieces on the walls and the people who come to see them, or don’t but are glimpsed outside its walls. Cohen juxtaposes the contemporary scenes of Viennese life with the paintings he lovingly photographs, cutting for example from the details of a Breughel canvas to the detritus left from an open-air flea market, or from the face of a man on the street to a strikingly similar portrait. Art imitates life, his camera seems to say, but the reverse is also true. It’s no wonder that some of the images Cohen draws of the couple’s travels through the city—like their boat tour of some underground caverns—have a distinctly painterly look.
These observations work best when they’re subtly expressed rather than explicitly shouted. A lengthy lecture on Breughel to a bunch of tourists by a teacher (Ela Piplits), for instance, makes its points far too bluntly. And at times Cohen strains for an artsy effect, most notably in a scene that switches from a discussion of a painting in which Adam and Eve appear nude to shots of museum visitors walking about au naturel. But generally speaking his choices and pacing work, and by the end you appreciate his sense of decorum and gentility, much as Janet comes to admire those same traits in Johann.
“Museum Hours” makes a nice companion piece to Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark.” It doesn’t mimic that film’s technical virtuosity, of course, but it does embrace a similar attitude of reverence toward great art. And for Sokurov’s virtuosity it substitutes a deeper sense of humanity.