Museum Hours is nothing if not a hybrid film, mixing elements of the fiction feature with those of the documentary, the city film and the essay film, at one point including a straight to-camera lecture. In some ways, it is a good companion piece to F For Fake since, while Welles bemoans the cheapening of art by business interests, Cohen’s film reasserts its beauty and importance.
Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a security guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. He watches the visitors and muses on the way they look at paintings until he meets a Canadian woman, Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) who captures his attention. She is in Vienna to visit her cousin who has recently fallen into a coma. Johann agrees to keep her company and to help her look after her cousin and a friendship blossoms between them.
Writer-director-producer-cinematographer-editor Jem Cohen’s main subject here is the ways that art and life may affect one another. A Bruegel painting called “Peasant Wedding Feast” owes its vibrancy to reality while the real world is filmed to resemble some of the painting and artefacts inside the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The film attempts to replicate a mood of quiet interrogation reminiscent to wandering through a museum. The film offers a series of moments and ideas from which an audience may pick it’s favourites – like the people Johann watches in the museum: a girl who lingers behind the rest of her class to look at a nude; a tour guide who insists that her group see more than what is obvious within a selection of Bruegels; and, inevitably, a group of school boys ‘competing to see who can look the most bored.’
However, Cohen attempts to imbue the real world with this mood of easy-going examination, filming litter as if it is a still life and buildings as architecture as art. This then has an effect on the paintings that we see, revealing them to be more than mere images. They become passionately reproduced impressions of the real world. The film’s best, and most representative, moment occurs at the end of the film where Cohen shows us a drab image of a woman walking up a hill encumbered by heavy bags. Cohen slows the footage down and, in voiceover, Johann examines the images as if they were placed on a museum wall. The effect – of both the placement of the images and Johann’s words – is to give this initially drab, realistic footage a sense of beauty and artfulness. Where art and real life are too often kept separate, Cohen manages to make a film that marries the two. In some ways, the film’s best moment may actually be the walk home, looking at the world for a brief moment with new eyes. The title Museum Hours may represent the limited time that one can look at art, but it also suggests an attempt to defy these limitations by bringing art into reality via our ways of seeing.
Sommer and O’Hara are very good, bringing heart and emotion to a film that might otherwise have been coldly cerebral. They are both non-professional actors playing versions of themselves, thus allowing once again reality to permeate art or vice versa. Sommer’s ruminations provide access to the film’s methods, tying the film together but also providing the film with vital anecdotes about people and their responses to the art on display. O’Hara shows a quietly unhappy woman who clearly wants more out of life and who may well have found it in Kunsthistorisches Museum. A few of their scenes do not work, such as a DJ set in a bar. Clearly Cohen has no problem with seeing art wherever he goes (why should he?) but some shifts feel like lurches that this quiet, little film is ill suited to make.
Though possibly a little overlong – the film feels like an improvisation, an experimentation and, hence, some moments are not as successful as others – the film nevertheless is a persuasive plea for a deeper consideration of art’s importance. Without appearing preachy or pretentious, Museum Hours asks us to care about art, to allow it to have an effect on our lives. It is a great achievement, then, that the film makes a convincing case for not only the validity of art but also it’s vitality.