Something kinda special can happen when a person enter the halls of an art gallery or museum, especially one with several works from a single artist: the viewer's perspective can shift from broad in-awe appreciation of individual pieces to scrutinizing and marveling at the details differing between them. Jem Cohen's Museum Hours relishes that very mindset, suggesting that life could be a lot more interesting and rewarding if people were to do the same with the little things in their life, instead of getting swept up in the broad strokes of the big, tough experience. A careful photographic eye guides us through the halls of Austria's Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in a peculiar, purposeful mix of budding friendship, family drama, and viewing of the artwork and the people sparsely scattered through its dim corridors. While not entirely successful in making these points stick together into a cohesive portrait, the experience in absorbing its tangential aesthetic delights gets the point across on its own artful steam.
The film's casual, mostly static plot involves two people interacting inside the Viennese museum: Johann (Bobby Sommer), an older, native security guard who's grown desensitized to the beauty surrounding him (both in the museum and in his home city), and Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), a penniless Canadian who borrowed money to travel to Austria because of a family illness. While on duty, Johann picks up on the fact that Anne might be in need of some help and perhaps a little company, so he befriends her, leading to conversations both inside and out of the museum, mostly chit-chats about their common ground, life experiences, and the Austrian locale. Along with that, narration weaves their time together with the goings-on at the museum, introducing concepts about beauty, significance, confidence, and authenticity through the camerawork's attention to details in the paintings, as well as how visitors react to the pieces. This exploration, this reawakening of their senses and breaking from the staleness of the norm, might be what's needed to enrich both their lives.
Museum Hours becomes more of a meta observational experience than a dramatic parable, using the story of Johann and Anne for little beyond a vehicle that gets identifiable people in the halls of the museum. There's little to say about their personal development across the film: deliberately restrained, somewhat dry performances from the actors are supported by understated scenes revealing their kinship and increased awareness of the medical state of Anne's ailing cousin. Director Cohen doesn't take great strides to elevate their relationship, instead allowing the audience to offhandedly view their conversations -- and moments alone -- as they comment on the nature of art, perspective, and minutiae, landing on similarities and differences. It doesn't offer the personal exploration or philosophical food-for-thought like Certified Copy or Before Sunrise does, somewhat keeping the audience at arm's length from the characters in ways which create a disconnect from the film's deeper erudite purposes.
Small, perfunctory joys are instead what make Museum Hours profound, emphasizing Jem Cohen's higher-concept goals by transforming the audience into nonchalant onlookers, halfway transported into the mental space of those exploring the museum. As the point-of-view jumps between adoring still-footage of the paintings and art enthusiasts absorbing their details, the camerawork invites those watching to mirror the people's outlooks on internal and external beauty, on interpretation of intention and the honesty of body language, as the film adapts a mixed-media approach that defies convention or genre. Documentary elements and a few surreal meta sequences distinguish the film: there's a scene where a guest lecturer chats at length about a series of paintings from Pieter Bruegel with a small "class", introducing a clash of opinions that underscores Cohen's ideas, as well a surprising and pertinent flash of nudity in another scene. Director Cohen's technique here is surprisingly playful and poignant, and, despite feeling the impacts of lackadaisical pacing, becomes a faintly absorbing work about opinions and broadening one's scope of consideration.
Video and Audio:
Museum Hours embodies the portrait of beautiful imperfection its 1.78:1-framed, widescreen-enhanced transfer, where the film's mostly-digital photography both does the imagery favors and limits its capabilities. A few details in clothing and close-ups end up too smooth, flattened and bland, while others end up admirably focused and textured. This becomes especially important as the lengthy scenes in the museum scan over the statues and paintings within, where the transfer experiences a mix of admirable stony grains and brush strokes to, again, relative flatness and some digital instability due to lower resolution. Contrast becomes an important factor in the halls of the museum, though, which the disc manages surprisingly well: the contours of gold-lead frames, the faint details of shadowy paintings, and the grain of canvas never get swallowed up in dark levels. Barring a few inconsistencies, it's quite appealing.
While receivers will trigger a full surround stage with this 5.1 Dolby Digital track, there's next to no immersive activity to really speak of here. There are points where it'd be nice for the surround quadrants to support the echo of the museum or the bustle of outdoor activity, like car horns or steps, but for all intents and purposes -- with maybe the faintest echo here and there -- this essentially plays like a 2-channel treatment. With that in mind, you'll find that the clarity and separation across the front channels is quite satisfying, where Johann's deeper voice becomes the most significant bass-driven point. Most of all, however, clarity of dialogue and how it reacts to environment becomes the crucial element in the treatment, and it's on-point there: the lengthy Bruegel lecture bounces between voices and accent with grace, while the narration stays clean and pronounced at all times. The original language track and an Alternate English Voice-Over track are both available.
The number of supplements dedicated to Museum Hours is rather limited: two Trailers are all that's on the disc for the film itself, excluding the Alternate Voice-Over Track, while a substantial Booklet contains liner notes from Jem Cohen and an essay from Luc Sante. That's not to say that more isn't on the disc, though, as Cinema Guild has also includes a collection of three Short Films by Jem Cohen: Amber City (1999, 48:39); Anne Truitt (2009, 12:38); and Museum (1997, 7:26).
In terms of conversation-style cinema focused on philosophy, art, and life, Jem Cohen's Museum Hours is a minor triumph that's only a few steps and a little focus away from greatness. It's got the philosophical commentary side of things down, allowing both strangers and established characters to express their perceptions inside a renowned Austrian museum, highlighted by a few great, lengthy scenes that focus on interpretation, beauty, and the importance of fine details. Where I'd like for it to harness more power is within the parallel relationship between one of the museum's guards and the poor, lost visitor from Canada that grabs his attention, as the film's connection between its content and the casual personal drama between them is too subdued and detached for its own good. The replay value's a bit low, so a Rental's probably the best way to go.