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MUSEUM HOURS (2013) review

November 14, 2013



written by: Jem Cohen

produced by: Paolo Calamita, Jem Cohen and Gabriele Kranzelbinder

directed by: Jem Cohen

rating: unrated

runtime: 107 min. 

U.S. release date: June 28, 2013 (limited New York theaters) and November 15, 2013 (at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, IL)  


Films have the capability to remind you of why you have a particular fondness for something. “Museum Hours” reminded me why I have a fondness for art museums. I have since I was a young boy. The vast rooms filled with paintings of old bring to mind so many questions as they offer a window to the past and provide a mirror to how we feel about what we see and possibly ourselves. The quietness and stillness of the art museum is also the approach American writer/director Jem Cohen takes to this artfully made film about art as well as watching and learning about life.

Cohen introduces us to Johan (played by non-actor, Bobby Sommer) a tall and slim security guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. He resembles a cross between Bruce Greenwood and Paul Harvey. We get to know Johann through his relaxed and searching narration, describing who he was and why he is where he is. Right away, he’s an interest, somewhat familiar, fellow. Someone we might pass by and dismiss and yet someone who, once we start to hear him, we’d gladly get to know.




Johann’s favorite room is the Bruegel Room, which he considers to be the finest collection of Bruegel’s in all the world, as well as the most popular room in the museum. There’s always much watching there. He shares that when it is quiet or one tires of looking only at visitors, one can always see something new in the rich and evocative paintings of renowned Flemish renaissance painter and printmaker, Peter Bruegel the Elder.

He shares that some of his co-workers are students who may not share his enthusiasm with the works of art around them. Maybe they’re thinking of partying or exams, but he’s at the point in life where he values solitude and reflection. He shares that he used to teach woodworking, where he’d hear the sound of the buzz saw all day and before that he was a tour manager for a band back when disco was big. He’s done with loudness and noise now though, preferring to work in a still and calm environment.

He cherishes the intricate details that can be found in even the most familiar paintings. As he makes his rounds in the different rooms, he even makes something of a game of it by searching for eggs that show up in various paintings. Before he knows it, almost two hours passes as he occupies himself with his optical challenge.




Cohen soon introduces Anne (played by Canadian singer/songwriter and actress, Mary Margaret O’Hara), who, we learn in her conversations with Johann at the museum, has traveled from Montreal to visit her comatose cousin in a nearby hospital. They are relatively the same age, one would guess in their sixties, and we observe Johann taking an interest in Anne. Not necessarily out of attraction, although that may be the case but not even specifically a romantic attraction. Johann is simply curious and observes Anne as he does everyone else.

Yet something strikes him differently about her and soon we find him offering directions, his services as a guide and next thing we know he’s sitting next to Anne at her cousin’s hospital bed. Through his generosity and openness, the two become friends. It may seem strange to witness a total stranger befriending a foreigner, but from his perspective, what he is doing is the same thing he would hope someone would do for him if he was visiting Montreal.

We learn a little bit more about Anne and Johan as he takes her around the areas of the city less-traveled by tourists. As they sit in a cafe, they discuss music and their appreciation for AC/DC and Judas Priest, which surprises us as well as them. The pair walk underneath overcast clouds, past markets and stand before ancient churches, but Cohen always brings us back to the museum though. As if it’s a place for respite and contemplation, the director includes several montages of civilians gazing at paintings, even one in which the onlookers appear as if walked right out of nude portraits. It’s a brief scene that both calls out to our attentiveness, allowing viewers to see how people truly are.




There are many sequences to appreciate in “Museum Hours”, just like there are many rooms to appreciate in a fine arts museum. I particularly appreciated a specific shift in the film that takes place in the museum, where we watch as Johann watches a captivating Gerga Pachner (Ella Piplits), an instructor (also around Johann’s age)guide a group through Bruegel’s work. Cohen treats the camera (and essentially us) as a viewer, by simply following along with the different paintings she discusses as her questions about art seem to be as much for us as they are for the patrons.

We then witness wintry street scenes with steam and cold breath circling the air, which leads us back to Anne who is seen singing to her cousin in her hospital room. Each scene is artistically framed with careful attention to geometric lines of buildings, lighting on a snowy night and foggy windows that overlook a cold and wet marketplace.

Soon, we return inside the museum to find Johann viewing a group of adolescents on a field trip. He sees them getting bored, texting and fool around. He admits, that’s how he was at that age. He knows which paintings will the teens attention the most. Medusa’s head of snakes is a given as well as other severed heads that show up in paintings. He watches as the kids nervously laugh at nudity or sex, hinted at our obviously displayed on the walls and even acknowledges that, to him, some of the art comes across as sleazy. He states, “even the dog looks a bit embarrassed” as he notices a smiling man grabbing a woman’s naked breast, both of them looking at us with different expressions.

As Johann watches the class, he revels in how great it is to be invisible and observe them, watching their reactions to the fine art around them. He admits that any of them have easy access to online porn, but here, the nudity they see is different. He can’t explain it. It just is. So is Coehn’s film.

“Museum Hours” can almost be viewed with the volume off as a series of artistic slides, providing a glimpse as to how art connects and interacts with us as well showcase the picturesque beauty of Vienna. If you’re drawn to travelogue films, appreciate watching ordinary people connect and find yourself people-watching in public places, this is a wonderful, intelligent and meditative film to experience.

I really could go on and on about this film, but it’s best left to the viewer. “Museum Hours” may not seem like it’s for everybody, but it is. It’s one of those films that can be considered a discovery.




RATING: ****






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