Jem Cohen's beautiful city symphony examines the ambiguity of art and romance.
Jem Cohen is a director who's name is constantly uttered in certain artist film circles, but his wistful, psycho-geographical and usually literally-inspired city portraits have never really crossed over into a more mainstream milieu.
While Museum Hours is hardly what you'd call the new Avengers Assemble, it's a film which manages to bundle Cohen's intellectual preoccupations into a package which remains easily approachable and satisfyingly illusive while concurrently drawing on the emotional cues of classic Hollywood.
Dedicated to John Berger, Chris Marker and his parents (in specific gratitude for dragging him along to various museums as a child), Cohen's wonderful film operates as a doleful hybrid of fiction, documentary and essay in which a mis-matched, middle-aged couple saunter around the fog-strewn, pea-green promenades of Vienna.
He (Bobby Sommer) is an eccentric odd-jobber who has found himself working as a security guard at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Art Museum where he takes particular pleasure in the Breugel room. She (Mary Margaret O'Hara) is a tourist-by-proxy, over from Montreal as the distant next-of-kin to her ailing cousin who lies in a coma. The pair meet cute in the museum as he gives her directions to the hospital, and they next thing you know a captivating and credible transatlantic friendship (purely plutonic, mind!) is born.
Recalling the academic rigour of Straub-Huillet's A Visit to the Louvre as much as the mellifluous poetics of Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, Cohen's film creatively roots a human relationship onto a highly specific European landscape while investigating the subtleties of how we look at and decipher art.
In many ways, the relationship is presented in sharp juxtaposition to the perspicacious proclamations on the old masters, and as a museum curator invites visitors to examine the fringes of certain Breugel canvases in order to reveal their meaning (or at least the extent of their ambiguous nature), we too are invited to look to the nuances and silences between words to unpick the underlying emotions of this idiosyncratic pairing.
Avoiding platitudes, sentimentality and any sense of didacticism, Museum Hours is a genuinely sage and sensuous work whose frames-within-frames quiver with a palpable sense of unbridled enthusiasm for art, artists and the cities in which their masterpieces reside. And if all this sounds a little heavy, it's presented with levity and charm, and Cohen is sure to load the material – whether through an edit, a line delivery or an ironic visual composition – with a sly comic undertow. Highly recommended.