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Life Imitates Art

filmArt, life, past, present merge in meditative 'Museum Hours'

If you've ever been to the venerable Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, you're in for a nostalgic treat with the film, Museum Hours. But you need not have ever been to Vienna to be drawn into the odd, languid spell cast by this Austrian-American co-production. Anyone who has ever haunted any Old World museum with a rich collection of Late Middle Ages and Renaissance paintings may find herself strangely beguiled by this meditation on art and life, past and present, and the many ways and places in which they intersect.

The film is written and directed by American Jem Cohen, who has an extensive list of credits in music videos and documentary shorts. Museum Hours has a bit of a documentary vibe to it; the main character, a museum guard, narrates his thoughts and observations as he goes about his daily life, almost as if responding to an interviewer, and onscreen conversations have an unscripted, ad-lib feel. There's not much in the way of plot or action, yet the film is thematically rich in its ideas on the secret symbolism of pictures, and art as the social media of its day.

Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a uniformed guard at the KHM. He spends his days on a chair in a niche before a heavy wooden door and behind a thin gold rope, although he often gets up and wanders around the colossal red, turquoise and green-walled picture galleries, making himself useful to museum visitors. The job has its tedium, he admits, but he enjoys the quiet now, after years of teaching woodshop to high school students and managing a rock band on the road.

His favorite gallery is the Bruegel room. Indeed, the KHM has the world's largest collection of paintings by Bruegel the Elder, large canvases teeming with messy life in all its diversity—allegorical wedding or hunting scenes, tiny figures acting out their tiny dramas in vast, uncaring landscapes, religious or mythological scenes radically reimagined in terms of 16th Century peasant life. Johann "always sees something new in the paintings" that continue to speak to the human condition.

One day, he strikes up a conversation with Canadian visitor, Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara). A cousin she was close to in childhood is in a coma in a Viennese hospital, and, in the absence of any other family, Anne has borrowed money to come spend time with her. Johann offers his services as a translator, accompanies Anne to the hospital, even begins squiring her around town for modest bistro meals in the evenings. He gets her a museum pass so she can spend her days inside the KHM, out of the winter cold.

But their budding friendship doesn't go where you think it might. (Early on, Johann mentions in passing that his last ex was a "he.") Instead, he and Anne become allied art explorers, soaking up the pictures and viewing art through the lens of life (and vice versa). Filmmaker Cohen composes every exterior shot like a Bruegel painting—black birds in the snow, distant stately buildings, busy street scenes—despite occasional cars or tram tracks. When Anne notes the "innocence" of a nude Adam and Eve, Cohen shows us a few random museum visitors similarly stripped down and unashamed. At a bustling flea market in the rain, Cohen pauses to consider the transitory nature of items composed like a still life in a junk-shop window.

Sommer makes an engaging tour guide, of both pictures and life. Grooming himself to go out one evening, he inspects his lined face in the mirror and wryly mutters, "Johann the Elder." At the museum, Johann notes, "adolescents compete to be the most bored and make fun of the art," yet they are always surprised by the sex and violence in the paintings. They could go online and look at Internet porn, he reasons, but the museum setting is both more safe, yet far more disturbing.        

The lack of narrative drive will frustrate some viewers, but Museum Hours is more about reverie than story. It would make a great double-bill in your Netflix queue with Lech Majewski's splendidly nutty Bruegel-movie mash-up, The Mill and the Cross, but it will be so much more compelling on a big screen. 


MUSEUM HOURS ★ ★ ★ (out of four) With Bobby Sommer and Mary Margaret O'Hara. Written and directed by Jem Cohen. A Cinema Guild release.  Not rated. 107 minutes. In German with English subtitles, and English.

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