A look around Vienna's legendary gallery provides some unexpectedly enlightening moments.
Halfway through Museum Hours, Jem Cohen’s sage docu-fiction hybrid set in and around Vienna’s legendary Kunsthistorisches gallery, a guest lecturer leads a small group tour through the museum’s famed Brueghel room. Apart from further breaking down the distinctions between “fiction” and “non-fiction” (the sequence is obviously staged, but the speaker’s words function as a learned discourse on the painter) and sticking it to annoying narrow-minded museumgoers (the lecturer absolutely schools a philistinic couple), the scene offers a useful way of looking at Bruegel, and by extension, both Cohen’s movie and the world around us.
Museum Hours is a film that’s not afraid to take on Big Themes, namely the intersection between life and art and the transience of existence, but it wears its ambitions lightly, unfolding in a quiet, contemplative mode that mirrors the hushed atmosphere of a museum. Rather than simply repeat bromides about the ways in which a half-century old canvas can speak to the present moment, Cohen shows us, drawing visual parallels between the paintings and 21st century Vienna.
Following the guest lecturer’s guiding theme, that much of the interest in Breugel’s paintings stems from their attention to quotidian detail which is granted equal weight to the works’ alleged larger subjects (not to mention her contention that the Flemish master was performing something of a docu-fiction hybrid of his own), Cohen cuts from a series of seemingly random items wedged into the corner of a painting (a broken egg, a playing card) to discarded items in “real life”, a cigarette butt or a glove left to soak in the snow.
If the film’s insistence on the correspondence between art and the larger world occasionally feels a little obvious, Cohen generally maintains a lightness of touch that puts across his points without making the viewer feel imposed upon. This directorial deftness is compounded by Cohen’s decision to ground his exploration of the film’s themes in a narrative of sorts.
When Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) gets a telephone call that a cousin living in Vienna has fallen into a coma, she leaves her native Montreal for Austria to await her relative’s inevitable decease. There she befriends Johann (Bobby Sommer), a guard who works at the Kunsthistorisches, and the two begin exploring the city together, Anne for the first time, Johann, who spends most of his time either at the museum or at home playing video poker, rediscovering his city after years of isolation.
The scenes between the two are subtly affecting, as Anne and Johann share details of their past lives and wistfully discuss their regrets. (Cohen smartly removes the possibility of romance by making Johann gay.) But the film achieves the full weight of its ambitions when the pair venture out into the city. As the two characters traverse Vienna, observing both public landmarks (a Holocaust memorial) and scenes of daily activity (kids skateboarding, a newspaper vendor hawking his wares), Cohen calls upon the audience to open its eyes to the outside world, which, he suggests, may be every bit as strange and wonderful and full of melancholy as the greatest works of art.
It’s not every day a filmmaker is granted full access to a legendary museum.
There’s always something to occupy the viewer’s eyes and mind.
The film’s effortless complexity means it won’t soon be forgotten.