“Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours is a small movie that contains multitudes”—Luc Sante
Jem Cohen’s film Museum Hours is a brilliant and mesmerizing answer to a question that he himself poses in the essay that accompanies the DVD—“How then to make movies that don’t dictate exactly where to look and what to feel? How to encourage viewers to make their own connections, to think strange thoughts, to be unsure of what happens next or even what genre of movie it is? How to combine the immediacy and openness of documentary with invented characters and stories?”
While not formulaic in the commercial, Hollywood sense, Cohen’s film does have a plot but one would be hard pressed to characterize the film as plot-driven nor does it particularly care about predictable scenes where characters recite lines from a script. It’s a much looser and improvised affair that speaks to Cohen’s interest in depicting the poetic and ephemeral place where life and art intersect, those elements of everyday life that register on the periphery of perception but that still make up the subjective landscape of human experience and history. What the film is (its form and conceptual concerns) and what the film is about (perception, loneliness, the universality of art over time and its allusive, individual character, etc.) is not one in the same but rather they complement each other.
The film at its core is the story of two strangers who meet at the Kunsthistoriches Art Museum in Vienna. Johann is a middle aged guard who spends his hours staring at people looking at art. Anne is a woman visiting her ailing cousin who is dying in a nearby hospital. He befriends her after they meet amongst the paintings of Bruegel, Rembrandt and other European masters. He serves as a kind of Viennese tour guide and translator for her as she awaits news about her comatose cousin. They wander through bars, take hillside strolls, amble through urban markets, and board an underground boat ride, both connecting the other to their life in miniatures, doing so as strangers once did prior to social networking. The dialogue is magically awkward and feels as though the actors were directed to improvise their conversational responses. Anne, played by cult singer Mary Margaret O’hara is especially magnetic. This is one of my favorite films from last year.