Halfway through Museum Hours, the film grinds its story to a halt to listen to a scholar lecture on the paintings of Pieter Bruegel that adorn the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum. She speaks of how the subjects of his pictures are often non-traditional, how the scope of his paintings often involve all sorts of little tangent and aren’t necessarily about the most important event happening within the frame.
One member of the audience disagrees; after all, shouldn’t the subject of Conversion of Paul be Paul? And isn’t Christ the focal point of The Procession to Calvary? It’s a very traditional understanding of how stories should be told: they should focus on their subject. Instead, Bruegel’s paintings spill out from the subject into a portrait of life larger than the one its subject inhabits. This lens of Brugel becomes a means of understanding Museum Hours.
In this sense, Museum Hours is a kindred spirit to Certified Copy. Certified Copy puts the lecture on art at the front end of the film and uses a general conversation about art’s value to explore ideas about life. Museum Hours places the lecture in the middle and both before and after captures little moments of life that don’t have much to do with its subjects other than they find them curious or interesting. While Certified Copy uses discourse on the value of art to enact life, Museum Hours uses art to enact its own form of art.
For instance, there’s a scene where Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) talks about the paintings of Adam and Eve. She’s struck by how unashamed they are, unafraid of their nakedness. Moments later, several patrons walk around naked as if it is the most natural thing in the world. For a moment, art is enacted.
While Anne gives several such glimpses into the art of life, such as when she talks about the river, a majority of the film is narrated by Johann (Bobby Sommers), a guard who works at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum. Anne, a foreigner from Canada, and Johann meet at the museum and begin a friendship. And while the film traces their growing relationship, just as much of the film is taken up with a lot of shots that have little to do with either character.
Scenes of life in the streets of Vienna, construction happening on one of the buildings, and still shots take up a lot of scenes in the film. Many of these images become their own way of enacting the art of understanding paintings through film, a stillness that allows one to soak in the image and contemplate on how its composition leads you and what it is trying to say.
And yet, writer/director Jem Cohen still retains a filmic quality to his craft. A later scene has Johann narrating impressions about life as images flash by quickly, moving onto the next one before Johann has even finished his thought on the previous image. This montage gives a cinematic dynamism to what could have been a series of slow, stilted shots.
Like the audience member during the lecture, those wanting a straightforward story with a clear subject will find Museum Hours frustrating. Like life, the film takes on a sprawling view of the world, one in which the characters in the film are a small slice of a grander universe. The characters in the film glimpse a world so big that it moves them to contemplation and awe. Museum Hours takes the audience on that same journey and for those who grasp the form, it’s a rich experience.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing