Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a security guard in the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna. Once a rock-and-roll tour manager, Johann has started to look for peace and quiet in his old age, and the museum provides everything he could want: an opportunity for serenity, an opportunity to observe the artwork, and an opportunity to observe the people who come in to do the same thing. One day, he notices Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), an English-speaking woman who is temporarily living in Vienna while her cousin is in the hospital. Almost immediately, Johann and Anne become friends, and Johann finds himself spending less time playing online poker and more time enjoying the beauty of the world he sees every single day.
Although the plot may read a little like Lost in Translation, Jem Cohen's Museum Hours is less a story about two people, and more a subtextual musing on the difference (if any) between art and life. Although Johann and Anne form a relationship which the viewer may become invested in, their scenes together almost feel like a subplot in comparison to extensive montages of people and places, both inside and outside the museum, usually (but not always) accompanied by contemplative voice-over from Johann. The story, what little there is, has little conflict and no traditional resolution; the viewer doesn't watch it so much as immerses themselves in it.
The main thrust of the film is revealed near the middle, when Cohen takes an extended break from Johann and Anne to follow one of the museum's tour guides. Her dialogue speaks directly to Cohen's goals for the picture, referencing pieces on the walls that are "like documentary in terms of accuracy", but are simultaneously "hardly just about facts", and "deceptively simple, like photo snapshots...not sentimental, nor do they judge." Much of Museum Hours is equally observational, watching people look at the paintings. Johann comments in one of his voice-overs that he, as a security guard, becomes invisible, and is able to watch patrons experience the work, and so do we. Although this is heady stuff, Cohen doesn't discriminate; beyond the paintings, characters and passerby also suggest the importance of storytelling, audiobooks, religion, films, and heavy metal music.
Throughout, Cohen's film finds an intoxicating beauty in the world surrounding his characters. Several sequences follow Anne, silently trekking around the city to look at buildings and sculptures, and Cohen's camera pulls far back from her to observe the art and beauty of the world itself, much like a landscape painting. When the characters are in the museum, sometimes the paintings themselves become the landscape, surrounding the tiny figures at the bottom of the screen. In between, Cohen singles out little moments, such as the man covertly checking his phone while the tour guide talks, or a distant dog running through a park that looks just like a tiny deer in the vastness of a work moments before. Frequently, he juxtaposes the intricate beauty of Vienna's architecture against modern posters and signage -- a painting in an ornate frame at a flea market, a different one in a cheap frame hanging in a yellow break room next to a common wall clock.
Although the symbolism of the film is interesting to unpack, it's fair to say Museum Hours will be a divisive viewing experience. Johann and Anne are great characters, and there's an engaging warmth during their scenes, but they're often split up by long passages of time (particularly the tour guide's discussion, which neither character is present for, and takes up a fairly extensive chunk of time right in the middle of the film). Since Cohen's goal is to drive the viewer to re-examine the world around them for beauty, it only makes sense that the film has no score, but the silence adds to the film's dry nature, and prevents even the simplest form of narrative drive. Stylistically, it's a challenging picture, but for those with the patience, Museum Hours is a thoughtful moving painting.
Museum Hours retains its handsome poster as Blu-Ray artwork, a split image of Anne and Johann in the museum, and of a cold looking train passing through Vienna. The back cover doesn't do much to inform the viewer of what the film is like, though, with no other actual stills from the film. It also feels like an oversight to include the general runtime of the extras, but not the film itself (107 minutes). The disc comes in a cheap, boxy Blu-Ray case, and includes a booklet with essays by Luc Sante and Jem Cohen (covering the making of the film).
The Video and Audio
Museum Hours was shot on two separate formats: all of the outdoor material was shot on 16mm, while interiors were shot on digital. It's not the fault of this 1.78:1 1080p AVC presentation, which is faithful to both stocks, but the difference is apparent in what may be an unintentional way. The 16mm material is grainy and dimensional, exhibiting a liveliness that the digital footage, as crisp and decently rendered as it is, is sorely lacking. While actual artifacts and banding don't intrude on the digital, there's a sense of them, a slight lack of stability just barely kept at bay. It's rare that a picture quality detail has an effect on the emotional reception to the movie, but the sterility of the musuem footage is oddly palpable, a slight distraction from the film itself.
A DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is, on the other hand, excellent. Although Museum Hours is distinctly minimal, with almost no score and less dialogue than an average film, the high-def audio captures the expanse of the musuem, conveying that specific open-air ambience of museums and libraries. Although the track is technically German, and an English dub (in lossy Dolby Digital 5.1) has been included, Museum Hours is mostly in English, with only the occasional conversation and some pieces of voice-over in German. The one disappointing aspect is that the English subtitles included only cover the parts of the DTS-HD MA track that are in German; no complete caption stream for all of the dialogue is included.
The booklet is the only place with some info on the making of the film; supplements on the disc consist of three short films by Cohen (all presented in SD). "Amber City" (48:41), "Anne Truit, Working" (12:38), and "Museum" (7:28) were clearly selected as companions to the feature. The first two are related in style and subject, respectively: "Amber City" is a similar travelogue, with lots of observational footage of people and places in an unidentified Italian city, supplemented by the occasional philosophical voice-over, and "Anne Truit" interviews Truitt about her paintings and techniques. Finally, "Museum" is sort of a dry run at the feature itself, shot way back in 1997, featuring a slightly more avant-garde style and tone than the serene finished feature.
Both an original theatrical trailer and a festival trailer for Museum Hours are included. A gallery of Cinema Guild trailers (Cousin Jules, Leviathan, Neighboring Sounds, Night Across the Street, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, The Turin Horse, Planet of Snail, Patience, and The Strange Case of Angelica) is included on the main menu.
Those who have read the review will probably already know whether or not the style of Museum Hours is something they'll be interested in. For those who are, Cinema Guild's Blu-Ray is light on behind-the-scenes info, but offers a faithful A/V presentation and some additional Cohen films as extras. Recommended.
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