The secret to understanding the considerable appeal of Museum Hours, the muted new drama from New York filmmaker Jem Cohen, comes about halfway through in a scene that doesn’t feature the movie’s two main characters. At Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, a visiting scholar (Ela Piplits) is taking a tour group through the building’s collection of fine art, stopping to admire some works by 16th century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The scholar talks of her admiration for Bruegel’s documentary-like depiction of seemingly everyday people, calling his paintings “deceptively simple … They are not sentimental, nor do they judge.” Going further, she points out one of his works, The Conversion of St. Paul, in which Paul is actually a small figure who’s part of a large landscape filled with horses and other people. Her point is that Bruegel wanted to draw our eye all over his canvas, suggesting that the commoner on the margins may be as interesting as the main subject. Alas, the scholar gets some pushback from some close-minded people on her tour, who insist that Paul is the main focus. Modestly, she simply responds, “There’s no reason we all have to share my opinion.”
This seemingly offhand exchange is witnessed by Johann (Bobby Sommer), an older museum security guard and one of Museum Hours’ central figures. But Cohen’s movie is less about individuals than it is about collective experiences—how we all take part in life’s broad canvas, none of us that remarkable and yet all so meaningful to the overall work of art. Johann is spending his later years serving as a guard—he used to work in rock ’n’ roll, and he’s happy to have the quiet—and as the film begins to unspool he befriends Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a middle-aged Canadian woman who doesn’t have much money but has come to Vienna to see a distant female cousin who’s fallen into a coma. Anne doesn’t know the cousin well, and since she’s just lying in a hospital bed motionless, Anne starts spending time with Johann, seeing the museum and the city.
That setup in a conventional drama would merely be the prelude to a budding romance between the two lonely souls, but Cohen, who has directed documentary shorts and collaborated on video projects with the likes of R.E.M. and Patti Smith, cares little about plot. Like Bruegel, Cohen establishes a premise and then subverts our expectations, making us look into the corners of his story. In Museum Hours, Johann and Anne’s conversations travel to different places, but the content of their talks is less memorable than the sense of random lives butting into one another for a brief time and then disconnecting just as easily. It touches on a notion of transience that runs throughout Museum Hours: What makes one painting a great work of art and another not? Does it matter if we see the same things in the same painting? And are the things around us—street signs and buildings and leftover swap-meet trinkets—their own kind of art?
Cohen isn’t trying to find answers to these questions—he’s merely trying to slow down our rhythms so that we can be meditative enough to stop and ponder such uncertainties in the world around us. Museum Hours is suffused with still shots around Vienna, and the seemingly mundane, unscripted exchanges between Johann and Anne add to the feeling that the movie is as plotless as a documentary. But that would be to underestimate the skill of the performances.
O’Hara, a singer-songwriter, infuses Anne with a kind of melancholy, disgruntled, anxious energy. The downbeat character isn’t transformed by her visit to Vienna, but she wasn’t supposed to be: Life doesn’t work like that. (Likewise, there’s no attempt to give Johann and Anne romantic feelings for one another. They’re just two dissimilar people who happen to inhabit the same space for a few days.) Sommer draws on his own background as a musician and concert promoter for his depiction of Johann, a man whose quiet, warm manner belies a much rowdier youth. And there’s also Piplits, terrific in her one scene as that tour guide. Museum Hours is as perceptive and inquisitive as Piplits’ character, and just as warm and undemanding. It offers its observations about aging, loss, art, modernity and friendship, but it’s open to plenty of different interpretations. There’s no reason we all have to share Cohen’s opinion.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Jem Cohen
Writer: Jem Cohen
Starring: Mary Margaret O’Hara, Bobby Sommer, Ela Piplits
Release Date: June 28, 2013 (New York); Aug. 16, 2013 (Los Angeles)