When Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) finds herself stranded in snowy Vienna for an unknowable amount of time while visiting a comatose cousin, she drifts toward one of the city’s art museums, the Kunsthistorisches Museum. She befriends an aging guard, Johann (Bobby Sommer), who helps translate the hospital’s calls for her, and they quickly become friends out of mutual loneliness. He shows her around Vienna, and they share intimate stories about their experiences and relationships. They spend a lot of time at the museum, and Johann narrates his observations as a guard.
Several years ago I decided to devote my studies, my passions, and a good portion of my time to the subject of art history. I may babble on about movies here and elsewhere online, but I hope to make art my life’s work. It is always exciting when a film somehow incorporates so-called “fine” art, when I can see my two loves collide and combine, but it is a rare thing for a film to focus entirely on the love of art. Not a famous artist. Not a contemporary art world satire. Not female leads in romantic comedies who work in museums or art galleries because it’s sophisticated but also vague enough (it’s a thing, trust me). Just… art. Looking at art. Responding to art. And in that one moment, either for an instant or for your entire life, being somehow affected, even transformed. That is what Museum Hours really is about. And it is goddamn transcendent. I think all art historians should see this film, but probably so should everyone else.
Visually the film is half art history porn, half dingy urban spaces, and often comparisons are made between the two. Art history as a study actually began in Vienna, so it is an incredibly appropriate setting for this story. Much time is dedicated to slowly, carefully looking at the works in the museum, especially Brueghel and other Northern masters like Rembrandt. Attention is also give to the visitors, to their acts of looking, which is something I find fascinating about public spaces like museums- we can look at people as they themselves are looking. Johann shares stories about different visitors and their reactions, joking about the “pornographic” nature of some artworks and their effect on students, and at one point there is even a clever surprise involving nudes in real life versus in painting. So much of the film’s conversations and observations relate to my own reading and class discussions that I found myself nodding my head like a dope at the dialogue. Of course, they talk about other subjects too, and I enjoyed the low-key interactions between Johann and Anne, who are wonderfully forthright with each other in both humorous and serious ways.
Art can mean so many different things to different people. Those who consider themselves art lovers may be interested in history, in beauty, in technical skill, in spiritual connection, in emotional resonance, or perhaps simply in a nice experience. There is no fixed definition of what art can be, which is one of the things I love about it. In a film like Museum Hours, centuries-old painting serves as both a link between new friends, and a therapeutic release for a woman who is struggling. For the film’s audience, it can be much more or much less, but it is a constant and revered presence here, and that alone provoked a strong response from me. Writer/director Jem Cohen wants to tell a human story, unstructured as it is, but he also wants to teach, and perhaps inspire. I believe that despite the field’s pretentious connotations, viewers don’t have to “know about art” in order to appreciate it, but often their experience can be enhanced by contextual or aesthetic information. At times, Cohen’s camera lovingly reveals masterpieces of painting without commentary, allowing his audience to simply absorb their qualities of technique, color, and form. At others, he includes historical or personal dialogue to add to our understanding of the works.
I can’t quite articulate how special this film is, or how truly strong my reaction to it was. I’m not even particularly interested in the period of art history that is given focus, but I am wholly dedicated to promoting the universal transformative power of all artistic practice and the importance of artistic centers. Museum Hours communicates similar views while also providing an understated and compelling character study, and I absolutely loved every minute of it.
Pair This Movie With: The quiet atmosphere and frequent museum trips reminded me of The Limits of Control, which is one of my favorite Jarmusch films.by