A documentary-style feature where fiction fades into the background, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours is a thought-provoking contemplation of art beyond the frame.
Still Life by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Almost three decades on from Richard Linklater’s Viennese whirl Before Sunrise, documentary videographer turned feature filmmaker Jem Cohen brings us another talky-walky promenade of the Austrian capital only with affectionate strangers thirty years older. But gone are the grandstanding tourist sights of Vienna, such as the Riesenrad and the Danube Canal, Museum Hours restricted instead to the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the backstreets and parks of the city’s suburbs. As well, of course, as the gallery and its collection of paintings, busts, artefacts and sculptures – central to Cohen’s film. With only a slight story, the museum is explored instead as a place for people watching, a crossroads where people meet and also a focal point for life’s greatest ideas – death, poverty, politics, sexuality and equality. Life in miniatures.
Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a guard in Vienna’s museum of fine arts where he watches the world go by, scours its paintings, and watches the reactions of its visitors. Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) lives in Montreal, but borrows money to fly to Austria after discovering her cousin has fallen into a coma. A stranger in the city, she visits the Kunsthistorisches Museum. She piques Johann’s curiosity, and when she returns a second time they start to talk. Wary to begin with, slowly they are drawn into each other’s worlds, trading the museum’s collection and an annual pass for visits to her cousin Janet in hospital. Anne is adrift in the city, not knowing how long she will stay and with little money to enjoy it, but taken under Johann’s wing, she discovers the city’s secrets and draws Johann out of his faded suburban existence.
Filmed in real locations, with authentic lighting and accidental extras, there’s a very documentary feel to Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours. Like his hero Johann, who watches the world from the gallery’s sidelines, conversations are interrupted with abrupt cutaways to pool-playing locals or a sedentary flock of pigeons. It’s a film for flaneurs, the same Vienna seen through the eyes of both a local and a visitor, its flak towers, canals and cafés, its train tracks, underground lakes and even Rachel Whiteread’s Nameless Library all cast in the same grey digital grain. The museum though is the crux of this world, where Johann watches adolescents die of boredom or discover the violence and pornographic sleaze of Vienna’s paintings. He witnesses the interpretations offered by a guide, and the visitors exposed by their covetous questions, their idle mobile-watching or their askew glances.
Cohen is purposefully perplexing, at one point casting the museum’s visitors into nudes, or exploring the paintings in reframed detail – just as Johann searches Bruegel’s paintings for eggs. Cohen explores the minutiae of observation, the pleasure of human (non-sexual) interaction and man’s confrontation with great ideas, all distilled into one location. But like Bruegel’s painting of The Conversion Of Saul, there’s no centre; all of life is here – Saul, horses’ rears and a small boy soldier in an oversized helmet. It’s up to us, the viewer, to decide on our own stories, connections and intrigues. The paintings are a mirror, like the shadows of the museum’s multilingual visitors reflected in the jet black of Rembrandt’s self-portrait.
It’s inevitable that Museum Hours will draw comparison with the museum’s great masters – the slow pans of hospital drips a kind of cinematic still life. But while Cohen’s focus wriggles unpredictably from close-up to wide shot, from dialogue to a cutaway of a toilet door, the meaning behind this tapestry of observations isn’t always clear. And like the film’s final sequence – a reduced frame – a modern, digital landscape curated by Johann, our vision is described, restrained by Cohen’s film and unable to cast a furtive backwards glance at a discus thrower’s rump like the gallery’s curious visitors. Cohen’s Museum Hours pales in comparison to the priceless masterpieces it features, its unsentimental hallucinations of the real not really up to the anarchic carnivalesque of Bruegel’s peasants. But nevertheless Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours is a slow-burning meditation on the congress of art and life, watching people watching paintings.
Museum Hours is released on 6th September 2013 in the UK