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.
The Video and Audio
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.
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.