It’s rather obvious to cinephiles, and even more-so to average movie goers when a director who is not solely a filmmaker tries their hand to the trade. Under appreciated actors, an array of ambient and/or obscure artists filling the soundtrack, and a story that seeks to defy everything one knows of convential film – all seem requisite for the work of cross-over filmmakers. Director Jem Cohen seeks to do just that in Museum Hours.
Hearing of her sister’s illness, down-troden and broke Anne must travel from Canada to Vienna for emotional support. Arriving in Austria during the dead of winter, knowing less than nicht in German, the American is lost in a new world. Visiting places where language barriers hardly exist – landmarks, museums – our heroine finds herself sifting through the Bruegel collection at Kunsthistorische Art Museum. Like most of the general public, the complex (and mysterious) works of the Flemish artist is unknown to her; the surface is all she sees. Anne is soon noticed by Johann, a long-time museum guard, who decides to educate her on what he knows of Art and soon enough, his home city of Vienna. A friendship eventually blossoms between the two rather eccentric people, which seems they both desperately need, though neither would ever admit it.
The synopsis above has one believe the plot of Museum Hours is rather simple, even linear; yet this strange symphony is as complex as the work of Bruegel. What Cohen seeks out to accomplish is a relationship between Anne and Johann, the city and it’s inhabitants, and true to that artistic nature, life and death. These characters, as the nameless faces and cityscapes are as much part of the cast as our main characters, resemble the strange figures within Bruegel’s work. This grandiose thesis smashes any concept of simplicity or horizontally driven plot – as was surely the objective. Unfortunately, Museum Hours would be more picturesque if a marginalized approach would have been taken. Already obscure thoughts begin to blur and attention spans start wavering, much like the plastic bags caught by the camera in the streets of the city.
Luckily, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Bobby Sommer are charming in Museum Hours, as Anne and Johann. The former, known for a musical career in Canada, is soft spoken and endearing as she attempts to mask the turmoil in her character’s personal life. Sommer strives best when recounting his personal history – playing in a rock band during the 60’s and venue promoter during the height of Punk in West Berlin – which all seem to differ little from Johann’s life. Yet the best performance comes during one Cohen’s artistic driven interludes, in the form of Ela Piplits. As tour guide Gerda Pachner in the museum, the actress leads an English speaking tour group through the Bruegel galleries. What emerges is a serious discussion on the labyrinthian (not to mention contradictory) nature of the artist. The segment has barely a strand of connection to the centerpiece of the story, yet manages to be the most intriguing point of the film.
Museum Hours is a pensive film that will hardly make viewers want to visit Vienna, but rather cozy up next to someone while staring at a piece of art. Which, as Cohen thanks his parents at the end of the film for taking him to so many museums during childhood, is exactly the point.