It’s tempting, after watching the exceptional new film Museum Hours, to describe director Jem Cohen’s visual style as chiefly “observational.” The film, a kind of hybrid between understated drama and essayistic tourism, approaches its subjects with uncommon patience and curiosity, lingering over objects and faces as if to savor their aesthetic qualities, eager to convey truths without authorial imposition. As Cohen’s camera makes its rounds through the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (the interiors shot digitally, the outside on 16mm) it seems remarkably attuned to everyday details, soaking in local flavor and, in essence, defamiliarizing a world we might think we know.
What’s intriguing and ultimately more compelling about this approach is its adopted perspective. Museum Hours, despite that almost documentary-like distance, in fact expresses a thoroughly subjective experience, submerging us within the consciousness of its thoughtful protagonist and narrator, Johann (Bobby Sommer), and reflecting upon the world through his eyes. And Johann, as it happens, is in a unique position to observe: As a longtime guard at a museum where nothing much needs guarding, he is both a fixture of the gallery and a perpetual patron of it, resigned to forever wander the halls like a ghost. His intelligence and candor inflect the film with rare insight.
The long, quiet days of his working life afford Johann one luxury: He is free to think as much as he likes, which is often. He frequently drifts into reveries of humble contemplation, presented to us as running narration, on everything from the work of Pieter Bruegel, his favorite of the artists on display, to students on excursions competing to look the most bored. Caught between the fixed monuments of the canon and the endless cycle of visitors, Johann finds himself watching both with equal interest.
Museum Hours is largely set in and around its central institution, but, more broadly, it is a film about public spaces and the pleasures of observing the people and things within them. For Johann, venturing into familiar places with renewed interest means becoming a tourist in his own city, an opportunity he welcomes when a visitor from Montreal, Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), expresses a desire to be guided beyond the museum walls. “What is it about some people that makes you curious,” Johann wonders, “while with others one would be just as happy not to know anything about them?” Anne, in town to comfort a comatose cousin, quickly proves to be one of the former, and the two become fast friends. Together, they discover Vienna—Anne for the first time, Johann all over again—and trade stories, remembrances, and hopes. Their friendship, much like the portrait of the city, feels both original and authentic.
The looseness of its construction makes Museum Hours a film of moments. Most of these seem self-contained, and many are rapturous. One apparently disconnected sequence finds people rummaging through boxes of discarded clothing and broken toys in the middle of a busy street; shot through a glass window and set to the sounds of a guided tour cassette, it gives the impression of an animated museum display.
Another scene focuses on Johann’s face, held in intimate close-up, as he describes several of the museum’s paintings from memory to Anne’s unconscious cousin, betraying such familiarity with and affection for the art he sees every day that it seems as if we are seeing the work for ourselves. The sincerity with which he details a picture of Christ is oddly touching: “It’s the blueness of the river and skies, bluer than I could ever tell.” As Johann speaks, Cohen cuts to a shot of a train moving silently beside a frozen river, and then to a building being erected in the midwinter. The effect is graceful, even sublime.
The centerpiece is an 11-minute sequence in which a playful guest lecturer guides a tour group through the museum’s Bruegel exhibit, which Johann watches from afar. Its mixture of observation, insightfulness, and above all curiosity encapsulates much of the film’s appeal. The guide’s assertion that Bruegel’s scenes of peasant life “are less quaint and more radical than they may appear” suggests a built-in counterargument to those inclined to dismiss Museum Hours for its apparent slightness. And, of course, it’s true: Cohen is working well outside the realm of quaintness. He has made a film of such intelligence and originality that “radical” seems the only accurate word.