The title of Jem Cohen’s evocative new film Museum Hours is multivalent, referring both to the practical hours of the museum’s operation—that specified duration when privately held important works are made accessible to the public—and to a qualitative conception of time. This measure of time shows the different experiential meanings for those who pass through the institution’s doors—the workers, visitors, the art installed on the walls, and Cohen himself, as he lingered in the space to make the film we’re watching.
The institution in question is the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, home to an exceptional collection of 16th century Dutch and Flemish masterworks. The film opens with a shot of Johann, a museum guard in the Picture Gallery (played with great warmth by Bobby Sommer), sitting behind a rope and framed by a large doorway like a subject in one of the paintings. This bemused and introspective loner spends his hours meditating on the art and the museum visitors, who are often seen fiddling with their audio guides or distracted by their cell phones. His observations and musings appear in voiceover throughout the film.
The museum is also the site where Johann meets Anne, a displaced Canadian (played by the singer-songwriter Mary Margaret O’Hara) visiting Vienna for an unspecified period while holding vigil over a hospitalized relative with an uncertain prognosis. As it turns out, the relative is a cousin whom she barely knows, and so Anne finds herself alone and adrift in a foreign city, short on cash but with hours to spare. When Johann generously offers to make a call for her and eventually accompanies her to the hospital, the two middle-aged protagonists begin an affecting and unconventional friendship.
Like much of Cohen’s work, Museum Hours fluidly mixes fiction and non-fiction, scripted and improvisational scenes into a narrative collage that feels organic. A colleague likened Cohen’s strategy in Museum Hours to the fiction of W.G. Sebald, and the comparison elucidates the ways in which the filmmaker gently allows meaning to accrete through the mingling of open-ended meditations on history, art, urbanism, and personal biography.
Museum Hours is divided between time spent inside the museum and time spent in the city, a structural division that conveys the implication of “work” time versus “leisure” time. Throughout the film, Cohen cuts back and forth between close-ups of paintings and observational footage of contemporary Vienna’s streetscapes, parks, and daily activity. The effect is to dissolve the physical wall between the institution and the street, between art and life. Shooting the museum interiors in Super-16 and exteriors in various digital formats, this may be one of Cohen’s most visually satisfying films. A subtle irony is that Johann seems to make this time more personally meaningful than the museum’s visitors do, proving that “museum hours” may be more of a state of mind than anything else.
Cohen’s latest also offers a compelling counterpoint to Chain, his 2004 hybrid feature that examined global economics through a decidedly pessimistic lens. Filming across 11 states and six countries, that film gave the illusion of being shot in one continuous landscape of strip malls, parking lots, and anonymous lobbies, with the two lead characters disoriented and disconnected. That conceit was integral to the film’s critique of the corporatization and homogenization of public space and the dissolution of social fabric. In voiceover, a bemused Johann at one point recalls a young art student and former museum employee who dismissed the art as products of “late capitalism.” But Johann is less concerned with judgment of the work on the basis of the market that surrounds it than with the ability of that same art to reveal latent mysteries relevant to the present moment.
At the same time, making art out of the everyday—or rather, dignifying the everyday by documenting and framing it within the context of art—is one of the film’s main considerations. It situates Cohen’s own practice in a historical trajectory that arguably begins with the work of 16th century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel, whose work occupies a central place in the film, both visually and thematically. Museum Hours is bifurcated by a lengthy lecture in the Bruegel Room on the painter’s modern vision of the world, given by a captivating art historian (Ela Piplits) to a group of skeptical Americans. Her main argument is that Breugel’s depictions of peasant life, while unfashionable in his lifetime, were in fact some of the first “documentaries.” Their power derives from the fact that, as she notes, “they are neither sentimental, nor do they judge”—an apt description of Cohen’s filmmaking here.
Museum Hours is committed to the pleasures and virtues of place, and Cohen suggests that, despite the rarified environment, a museum may serve even better than the street for a place of honest human connection. The filmmaker’s interest in political economics is subordinate to the relationship of Johann and Anne, which is the film’s emotional core. Perhaps the most radical aspect of the film is that it dares to make middle-age friendship—in this case, a relationship devoid of the decidedly “cinematic” drama of sex and romance—the centerpiece of a narrative. (Johann’s homosexuality, mentioned only in passing, is essentially irrelevant.) Cohen’s sensitive representation of an adult relationship motivated by empathy and an honest desire to connect, however briefly, without expectation or judgment, makes Museum Hours his most generous and satisfying film.
PAUL DALLAS is a film writer and programmer with a background in architecture. He also writes for Filmmaker and Interview, and has programmed for the Guggenheim and the Maysles Cinema.