Director: Jem Cohen
Cast: Mary Margaret O’Hara, Bobby Sommer
Running Time: 107 Minutes.
Release Date: 6th September
Midway through Jem Cohen’s contemplative Museum Hours, a guide is discussing a painting when the camera catches a tourist distractedly thumbing his phone. The painting in question is The Conversion of Saint Paul by the 16th century Flemish artist Pieter Breugel the Elder. When the guide invites her group to determine the focus point of the painting the same tourist singles out the titular Saint Paul. The guide then draws his attention to a child who, though small, is more visible than Paul and painted with more care and solemnity. For the guide, Breugel’s work is filled with fringe figures that upon closer inspection seem just as important as the painting’s supposed subjects. Both readings, she concedes, are valid but while the tourist’s is literal, the guide’s is more explorative and ultimately, for her, more rewarding. A film essayist and documentary filmmaker, Cohen appears equally frustrated with the notion of ‘closed text’ and like Breugel’s paintings his film can be read in any number of ways.
Set in Vienna, Museum Hours unfolds in and around the city’s prestigious Kunsthistorisches Art Museum where we first meet Johann (Bobby Sommer), a watchful and melancholic museum attendant. A former band manager and teacher, Johann has had his “share of loud” and is content now with his “share of quiet”. Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) is a Canadian tourist who has travelled to Austria to be with her cousin who has lapsed into a coma. She meets Johann who, upon learning of her cousin’s illness, offers his help and a tentative friendship evolves. Sommer, who narrates large periods of the film, has a mellifluous voice and his observations on art and people’s connection to it conjure some of the film’s best moments. While the enigmatic O’Hara reveals less of herself, she is equally intriguing to watch. With neither performer a professional actor the pair blend fact with fiction and recall past memories to add texture to their characters.
Cohen isn’t interested in traditional narrative and though Sommer narrates throughout he and O’Hara remain absent for large portions of the film. Instead we are treated to lingering shots of the museum’s paintings, interspersed with images of visitors to the museum and seemingly arbitrary snapshots of Vienna. Cohen appears to see the Kunsthistorisches’ paintings as part of a larger tapestry that extends beyond the museum’s doors to include Johann and Anne and the fragmented imagery with which he surrounds them. In this sense Cohen’s film is itself a kind of museum, his images, its collection to be explored and examined beyond surface impressions. As with any museum some will find this collection more engaging than others but approach with an open mind and you should find the experience worthwhile.