Film Review: 'Museum Hours' Finds Art In The Lives Of Ordinary People

By Carman Tse

Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours opens with a shot of an elderly museum guard in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum sitting contemplatively amongst the works. This shot serves as our through-the-looking-glass instruction manual in a film that explores the intersection of art and life. Johann (Bobby Sommer) is an observer of people by occupation, and this film trains the audience to do the same.

One day Johann notices a peculiar face amongst the crowd of hundreds of daily museum visitors: a Canadian woman (Mary Margaret O'Hara) who finds herself in Vienna when a family member falls ill. Anne is just an anonymous individual in the museum-going crowd, but something about the despair and aimlessness on her face immediately draws Johann to her. From this chance meeting, the two develop a friendship that becomes the center of Museum Hours. Their conversations and Johann’s internal contemplations serve to illustrate Cohen’s ideas.

The film is less interested in any semblance of a plot about the relationship between the two characters. Instead, it turns its attention to the beauty of both the centuries-old artwork in the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the still-lives of ordinary humans. Shots of skateboarders and peasants in Vienna are showed alongside and as equals with paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt. Cohen is especially drawn to the room that houses the museum’s collection of works by Breughel; his paintings of crowded landscapes filled with the daily lives of peasants is an obvious inspiration for the film.

Museum Hours is a work whose ruminations and observations are always expressed with candor. Though it focuses on the lives of ordinary people, it's not condescending. But with an unhurried tempo and runtime of almost two hours, the grip that it has on the viewer comes undone as it loses focus at times. Perhaps this lack of cohesion is by design much like the works of Breughel. A museum docent (Ela Piplits) explains that in works such as “The Conversion of St. Paul” and “Peasant Wedding”, the observer can become drawn towards seemingly minor characters that populate the canvas. In Museum Hours, the bond that forms between Johann and Anne is so lovely that it can suck the viewer in, much like listening in on a conversation with old friends.

Museum Hours opens today at Laemmle’s Royal (West LA), Playhouse 7 (Pasadena), and Town Center 5 (Encino).

Museum Hours (Trailer) from Cinema Guild on Vimeo.

Carman Tse is a native of Northern California but not one of Those Guys that hates on Los Angeles (despite his affection for the Giants over the Dodgers). When he's not sharing long-winded thoughts on movies, he's probably sharing long-winded thoughts on baseball or reading about weird sea creatures.