Written and directed by Jem Cohen
Starring Mary Margaret O’Hara, Bobby Sommer, Ela Piplits
Little Magnet Films, 2012
Jem Cohen’s absorbing film Museum Hours centres on the accidental meeting of two people who are brought into a realization of their relationships to the creations around them, both human and artificial. Cohen’s quiet directorial style might lead viewers to mistake the film for a documentary at first glance and, in a way, it is filmed like one: the human interactions are captured as if by accident, whimsically included between scenes that focus on paintings displayed the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.
Mary Margaret O’Hara plays Anne, a Montreal-based, East Coast woman who is visiting the Austrian capital to see a cousin who lies in hospital in a coma. It’s not hard to guess that this is a significant move for her given that she borrows money for the trip, leaving behind a pretty lonely existence for what could turn out to be a pretty lonely trip. Gray skies welcome her to Vienna, the usual disappointment of first landing in a new place whose charms do not greet you at the arrival gate; what we know and she does not, however, is that the warmth she will experience will display itself on the walls of the museum she attends between hospital visits.
We are also introduced to Johann (Bobby Sommer), a museum guard who has spent the last six years keeping watch over the Kunsthistoriches, making sure visitors do not touch the artworks and answering the most popular question that he claims he (and, it’s easy to assume, every museum employee) gets: “Where is the bathroom?” Johann sees Anne and, noticing that she seems a bit lost, offers to help her with directions to her cousin’s hospital. When he finds out the reason she is in Vienna, he offers to be her interpreter with the hospital doctors.
This favour of Johann’s is made without any dramatic flourish. There’s no overt expression on his part or immediate suspicion on hers. We do not see these two embark on the road towards a romance, either; Cohen steers clear of this possibility by having Johann tell Anne about a former male partner. The conflict that Cohen’s warm and witty film is interested in is not the cross-section of art and passion, but that of the human and the human creation.
The hospital is juxtaposed against the museum, coming across as a museum of a different kind – a gallery of bodies – and, as with the time they spend together at the museum, Johann is there to facilitate Anne’s observations of what she sees. We see the objects in her cousin’s room before we see her comatose body; she is like one of the paintings on the museum wall, inert but alive, her story frozen in time and open to interpretation by the viewer. Where Anne’s cousin could previously define herself verbally, it is now in being observed that she gains meaning. We believe that we are more than just what people perceive us as being, but this is an illusion, much as the paintings in the museum only exist to be seen.
Johann has spent so much time surrounded by the museum’s art that he has not just seen it, but has soaked all the paintings and sculptures into his calm demeanour. His experience dealing with the public has not embittered him but placed him in a well-worn groove, the only exception being his favourite place in the museum, the Bruegel Room, where he says “you will always see something new”. His co-workers are less enthusiastic, occupying their posts in various shots of the film but not having nearly the same level of interaction with either the public or the paintings as Johann does. We see later on that Johann has the same level of comfort and enthusiasm when escorting Anne around the city, giving information on the homeless the way he would a work of art. He observes others shrewdly but without judgment the way he does the paintings.
Anne becomes a denizen of the museum rather than the hospital, narratively justified by the kind gift of a guest pass from Johann, wandering its corridors and going further in her deep exploration of the works of art they contain. This is because, for Cohen, the museum is where eternal life is to be found, not in the sick rooms where corporeal existence often meets an earthly conclusion.
The time that these two spend looking at paintings on the wall, with Johann providing information and Anne offering interpretation, tells us that the art on these walls is alive. It stares back at us when the camera is fixed upon its various framed portraits, a record of the emotions of the artist who created them and a comment offered to the characters in the film. The paintings at the Kunsthistoriches are not background, they’re an active part of the gallery visitor’s experience and of the movie itself, gazing back as boldly at the observer as they are gazed upon. The scenes involving biographical information or anecdotes from the past, including a couple of scenes at a bar that are pulled off with refreshing candour, reveal the human talking to be mere conversation; the paintings provide the actual dialogue. When Johann and Anne look at paintings of Adam and Eve, it provokes more personal confessions from Anne about her life than beer ever does. Another conversation about capitalism eventually leads to a rumination on the origin and nature of museums. The result is that the entire city becomes an art gallery for her; Anne and Johann enjoying wonderfully breezy conversations while taking in the entire city as if it were a gallery, even sitting on a bench to admire a cathedral as if it were a painting on a wall. She reacts to buildings from the war by speaking the language of an art lover: “It might disappear when you turn the corner” she says about one she encounters.
A few moments stand out as slightly bizarre, but not flawed: a scene where the museum’s spectators are suddenly naked; the objects of creation in place of the paintings on the wall is somewhat arch, but not overstated. The standout centerpiece, however, is a marvellous break in the film’s form, with Ela Piplits playing a museum tour guide (she could honestly have been real and I would not have known the difference) who gives a lengthy lecture on Bruegel to a mixed group of tourists. Cohen does not kid himself about the world outside his protagonists, showing a tourist checking their phone while Piplits provides historical information, teaching her guests that their eyes “are carried along carefully from detail to detail” when viewing Bruegel’s paintings. His paintings “are not sentimental, nor do they judge”, and despite a humorous swipe at obnoxious American tourists, it’s easy to say that Cohen is the same. He is instead reminding us that his two heroes’ private experience is precious and the product of chance; if you don’t relate to these two, you’re not supposed to – you’re just expected to watch the magic happen.
Eventually, Anne’s story with her cousin reaches its conclusion and, true to form, the film returns immediately to the museum, not to paintings this time, but Egyptian artefacts, to an ancient world forever frozen in time. Anne’s cousin goes into the great beyond, anw here Anne previously she sang to her at the hospital, Anne now sings looking out her window, continuing her dialogue with her cousin and reminding us of the transience of things and the simultaneous eternity of human expression. The tour guide spells out plainly and clearly for us that observing art is a complex and volatile experience, and Cohen informs us that art is a constant dialogue with life.
Bil Antoniou is a playwright and film critic whose reviews can be found at myoldaddiction.com. He is co-host of the podcast BGM: Bad Gay Movies/Bitchy Gay Men, which is available on iTunes. He is currently working on his fourth play.