The Movie Waffler DVD Review - <i>Museum Hours</i> | The Movie Waffler

DVD Review - Museum Hours

A museum guard befriends a Canadian woman visiting her dying sister in Vienna.

Directed by: Jem Cohen
Starring: Mary Margaret O'Hara, Bobby Sommer, Ela Piplits

The Movie:

Every once in a while a film comes along whose cumulative impact is far greater than the scope of its narrative. Museum Hours is such a film, a slender tale of two people meeting in Vienna and an exploration of the treasure trove of artwork ensconced in the museum Kunsthistoriches.
When Anne (O’Hara) gets a call informing that her cousin Janet is in critical condition in Austria, she leaves her native Canada to be with her. With little money or knowledge of the area she begins to spend time in the museum, striking up a friendship with kindly security guard Johann (Sommer). He offers to help her as an interpreter and show her around the city, showing her the sites of his native city and opening his eyes anew to the pleasures of Vienna that are not in any tourist guides. It may sound like Richard Linklater’s Before series with Ethan Hawke replaced with Werner Herzog’s slightly less dour brother, but Cohen is as interested in his environment and an investigation of art as he is in the platonic relationship. The story is a framing device to hang its treatise on art and how to see beyond the obvious. It is the closest you could hope to get to a film adaptation of John Berger's seminal book and TV series Ways of Seeing.
Cohen’s film is slow paced; he asks for your attention and contemplation, switching from close up images of artwork (allowing you to look in great detail at the texture and construct of the painting, making the medium part of the artwork rather than just a stylistic choice) to the streets of Vienna and the patrons of the museum, embracing the associative power of the art on display.
We get long stretches of voiceover from Johann (on DVD available in original German and English language); his is a job of vigilance and observation. The curators may be explaining the artwork but he is a critic and explicator of the patrons that visit, seeing the art and history of the people walking through these hallowed halls.
The quiet build up of information, the particular fixation on the work of Pieter Bruegel and the woozy slow pace of the film has a remarkable effect. By investigating the work up close you see the small objects and people taking precedence over the ostensible theme of the work. Cohen asks you to look beyond the centre of the frame, find the small images and investigate them, the richness and complexity of the artwork too great to just fixate on one area. This approach spills over into the discussions and walks away from the museum. Once you surrender to the film's charms you will be investigating and interrogating the framing of each shot. Johann and Anne are the small figures in the paintings, the people who normally get ignored becoming centre frame. It would be a pedestrian conceit if not done with such love and care.
There are a few lapses in tone along the way. A scene depicting the patrons of the museum naked seems as if it has strayed from a different, less allusive film. A scene involving an Art Historian being questioned by two Christians, one who is paying more attention to his phone than the work, is also a little one note.
If you are an admirer of the Slow Cinema movement you will find plenty to admire here. A work that is both intelligent, whimsical and may possibly alter the way you look at the way a film is framed the next time you visit the cinema. That’s a big achievement for a film of such small stature.

It is always good to get extra content that gives an understanding of the directors work. Here we get three of Jem Cohen’s earlier works: Amber City, a 48 minute short film, Anne Truitt, Working (13 minutes) and Museum (Visiting the Unknown Man), an 8 minute short that forms the kernel from which this film sprouted. A good overview of earlier work but nothing about the actual film.

Jason Abbey