Museum Hours (2013) – Jem Cohen

I love the sound of a museum. The contemplative and deafening silence, the sound of movement, the clack of business shoes, the squeak of tennis shoes, the acoustics that have a way of taking the all-encompassing absence of sound and using it to focus your attention on a painting or a sculpture or just your own thoughts. This mood of museum culture is re-created brilliantly in Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours (2013), a small poem of silence and thought that asks you, as museums do, to look and think about what you’re looking at.

In a prestigious Viennese art museum sits Johann (Bobby Sommer), a semi-retired guard who looks at the paintings on the walls and makes paintings of the people in his mind. He’s in love with the work of Bruegel, whose work is showcased in this museum better than anywhere else in the world, he boasts, and the frenetic but controlled energy of the masses of faces that cross his path in the museum remind him of the sprawling canvases of the Flemish master. What’s so different, he asks himself, between Bruegel’s details and the details he sees in the world? A wagon wheel in a painting has its equivalent in the form of a misplaced glove in real life. The folded piece of litter he sees on the ground has as much nobility as a sack of flour in a painting.

One of the people to cross Johann’s path is Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a Canadian visiting the city to look after a cousin who has slipped into a coma. She is admiring a painting when he comes to her and tells her about it. He talks well, his voice is soothing, and though he doesn’t oversell it, his enthusiasm is infectious. They begin an intellectual relationship, walking around the museum discussing the paintings, sitting in cafés discussing music (Johann, stunningly, was a former booker for hard rock and punk bands), touring the city discussing life. This is just about it for what Museum Hours has to offer by the way of plot, but its plot is not the point. It doesn’t want to tell a story, it wants to put you in a state of mind.

The movie reminded me of two others. First, the beautiful The Mill and the Cross (2011), which was set within a Bruegel painting while Bruegel was painting it. It has a similar attention to detail and an enthusiasm for painting and both movies felt as if they were being made in front of our eyes. The Mill and the Cross was much more visually arresting (Museum Hours was shot mostly at the real Kunsthistorisches Museum with nothing but natural light, which weaves its own hauntingly beautiful spell but isn’t as searingly gorgeous as The Mill and the Cross), but they both give the feeling of the creator and creation being intertwined. Where Bruegel is the personified creator in The Mill in the Cross, Cohen is invisibly present in Museum Hours making a stream of consciousness ode to contemplation, to meditation and to beauty that seems to grow naturally from moment to moment. A scene in the middle of Museum Hours, which leaves Johann and Anne for a while to focus on a tour given by a curator played by Ela Piplits, would be pointless and wrong in a more traditional movie but along this lazy river it becomes a welcome diversion. Johann steps silently behind the tour group, unobtrusive like Bruno Ganz in Wings of Desire (1987), bemusedly watching the presentation. He’s not listening to the words, per se, as he’s heard them; he’s feeling the beats of process, anticipating the questions that will be asked, gauging the tour guide’s reactions. The second movie wasLe Quattro Volte (2010), which had even less plot that Museum Hours but had a similar feeling of meditation and relied just as much on the natural sounds of quiet places that transport the mind into self-analysis.

I really enjoyed listening to Museum Hours, to the way that certain places sound different. The noise of a busy café (even a relatively slow one) is a cacophony in this movie, a stark contrast to the churchlike solemnity of Cohen’s holy place, the museum. Johann’s voice, which guides us through a number of voiceovers, is also an argument for personal connection. Johann can share their thoughts on art, heightening both their experiences. The movie subtly intimates that the pre-recorded handheld museum guides are no substitute for the social component of consuming a painting.

The movie also argues that everyone deserves the type of thoughtful assessment we give to paintings. The attention to detail to each brushstroke should easily be applied to every wrinkle, freckle and strand of hair of the people around us. This is a deeply thoughtful movie, one that is like the best museums. I wanted to get lost in it, discovering new rooms and exhibits, until the hours were over. 

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