Jem Cohen’s gently flowing Museum Hours is set in Vienna, but its leisurely and subtle storyline could be placed anywhere – the feature is ultimately about the need we have to connect with others, particularly in a time of crisis or transition, and how the art that reflects, inspires and engages us can provide a crucial conduit in making those connections.
The 19th Century grandeur of the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum provides the place for such a link: Johann (Robert “Bobby” Sommer) is a guard that spends his days silently observing and contemplating the museum’s art and those viewing it; Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) is a Montreal woman unexpectedly called to the City of Dreams when a childhood friend and cousin falls seriously ill. After they meet at the Kunsthistorisches the two forge a friendship that takes this plutonic pair throughout the city and leads them, and us, to explore art’s ability to provide answers – and even more questions – about the human condition.
The New York-based Cohen wrote and directed the film; he and Peter Roehsler are credited with its splendid cinematography, which through high-definition digital video and super-16-millimeter film combines a documentarian’s detail with an artist’s illumination, particularly when shots of people and places under a blue-gray sky in wintry Vienna lead quickly to works of art that seem to perfectly mirror them.
Sommer’s delivery of narrative musings about his life and work (his character, like Sommer himself, was once involved in the music industry) and ease before the camera may come as a surprise when one learns this is his first acting role, but some folks are just naturals; O’Hara, the sister of actress Catherine O’Hara (Waiting for Guffman, Home Alone), is among other things a singer-songwriter and her performance has a lovely lyrical quality to it. Viennese actor Ela Piplets also makes a strong contribution as a tour guide who questions assumptions about the meanings and focal points of artworks like Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1563 painting “The Tower of Babel” and his 1567 “Conversion of St. Paul.”
There are surprises – one comes when those viewing the paintings and sculptures come to resemble a certain aspect of them (I’ll avoid giving away what that aspect is) – but this is more of a meditation on art’s mirroring of and influence on life than a treatise about creative expression. In this typically action-flick-filled summer it’s refreshing to find a film that is the antithesis of the “more is more” blockbuster mentality; in its unhurried manner Museum Hours allows us to contemplate the connections we make with each other and the role art can play as crucible for such interactions.
Museum Hours (http://www.museumhoursfilm.com/start_E.htm) opens today (Aug. 9) in Nashville at the Belcourt Theatre (2102 Belcourt Ave.) – click on the theater’s link in this sentence for times and tickets. Not rated, in English and German with English subtitles, 106 min. Directed and written by Jem Cohen. Starring Robert Sommer, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Ela Piplets.
*Photos courtesy The Cinema Guild.