Running Time: 107 mins
Release Date: September 06th, 2013 (UK)
Director: Jem Cohen
Writer: Jem Cohen
Starring: Mary Margaret O’Hara, Bobby Sommer, Ela Piplits, Marcus O’Hara
Regular readers (however few you are) will know that I work in an art gallery so it might not come as a surprise that I would be drawn to this title from New York based filmmaker Jem Cohen. Museum Hours is an Austrian-US co-production set in Vienna, Austria. It is less about the inner-workings of a museum (although the details caught are dead on in my experience) and more a naturalistic travelogue in Vienna all about art, people and observation punctuated with what I consider to be misjudged forays into some of the dull aspects of the city that exposes the weakness of slow cinema.
The story begins in Canada. A woman named Anne (Mary Margaret O-Hara) receives a call from a hospital in Vienna informing her that a cousin she hasn’t seen her in years is in a coma.
She heads to Austria but is immediately overwhelmed by the foreignness of it all. With little money and no sense of direction she wanders into and around Kunsthistorisches, an art history museum, struggling with a map and looking a bit confused. Getting to the hospital is going to be harder than she expected until she meets Johann (Bobby Sommer), a museum assistant who offers to be her guide.
With her cousin’s health in a precarious state, Anne can do nothing but wait for any sign of change and so she begins to while away the hours outside of her hotel, exploring Vienna and hanging out with Johann (Bobby Sommer) as the two talk about history, art and themselves.
Museum Hours is an unconventional romance and all about the art of observation and in a brilliant spin on things, Jem Cohen makes one of his protagonists a museum assistant, a profession where the observation and understanding of art and people is key to doing a good job.
A glib comparison to make might be with Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), a film that also took two different people, an American man and a French woman, and let them wander around Vienna together without forcing an elaborate plot on them. Here, the characters are different.
Anne and Johann are not young adventurers but two experienced souls who don’t realise how lonely they are.
Anne’s personal links are few and far between as her family has split apart and she survives on a few part-time jobs and the charity of a few friends. Whatever dreams she had are in the past and she is coasting along primarily alone. The news of her cousin’s dilemma seems to sharpen that loneliness and in a fit of familial loyalty she heads to a foreign land to visit her cousin with a few euros in her pocket and even less memories of times spent with her cousin.
Johann has led a varied and interesting life having experienced radical politics and various jobs that reveal he is a people person which is why he is a good fit for museum assistant. Unfortunately it seems that he has lost his joie de vivre as it is revealed that he spends more time in a dull, enervating routine of working and then retiring to his apartment alone, playing online poker.
The two are isolated without realising it. When they meet, Johann feels compelled to help Anne and from there they grow to realise how alone they are. It’s a naturalistic meet-cute as they stumble into each other at the museum. Anne being lost and Johann being a museum assistant, he has an opening to get to know her. His profession means getting a glimpse of a person’s life and the two find a spark with each other, their loneliness making them cross a line and take a chance most would never do.
It does not feel false in the least and the two feel like a good fit, maybe soul mates. Over the course of the film various romantic avenues are opened and closed but despite whatever lifestyle differences they might have the two open up and reveal more like intimate lovers who make each other see the world anew through their presence and opinions. At first they are hesitant and they offer nothing but terse dialogue to each other but their growing closeness becomes infectious as we listen in on their increasingly jokey and warm dialogue while witnessing the personal tours they take and observations they make.
Like a good museum assistant, Cohen knows how to pick out the details that aren’t so obvious.
This is slow cinema at its best in the sense that while it is minimalist and not much happens in so many long takes, this allows the audience to take in all of the details like a person would when looking at a painting in a quiet gallery.
The film proceeds at the slow pace of a museum visitor taking their time, the camera sliding along ancient artefacts and using close-ups to get details in paintings. It spares a quick glance to Johann and the other museum assistants and visitors, aware of their presence, before slipping back into observing the art and visitors. Amidst all of the history and splendour emerges the sense of the fleetingness of time, that Anne and Johann are playing a familiar game and best make the most of their time together.
Slow cinema is a double-edged sword, however. When there is something interesting to look at or listen to, then it is engaging but there are moments when the film grinds to a halt.
There are too many sequences where the camera records non-descript buildings or long drawn-out shots of traffic and public transport and many anonymous urban spaces and filthy flea-markets and skate parks. It was at points like these where the film felt interminable and I lost interest. It reminded me of how much I dislike slow cinema when it is done wrong. It is meant to serve the wider theme of the film, it’s interest in people, all part of picking out the details of Vienna in a similar way that Johann’s favourite artist Bruegel the Elder might. The interest in the earthy parts of Vienna just did not translate for me. Alas, I found that there’s nothing vaguely interesting these mundane places where nothing much happens and the analogy with Bruegel’s art and Cohen’s film falls flat.
Cohen is better with Anne and Johann. He has an intense interest in the two characters and there is a tenderness in the way he records them with long takes of the two together, smiling and laughing in each other’s company. Indeed, the film works better when his interest is focussed on the people and art in the museum. His observations on the guests in the museum, the way people look at things and the way that they act is fascinating. Couples hold hands, teens smirk at or are drawn to naked bodies people with audio guides are lost in a world of their own and when the focus is on them it is interesting.
There is the gem of a good idea to the film, an unconventional romance between Anne and Johann, but when the film deviates from them, and it does so too often, it slows down into a dull trudge through the slush filled back streets of Vienna in what amounts to a boring travelogue about the boring bits of the town. These moments are slow cinema at its slowest and least visually impressive and I yearned for a return to the museum. Those moments, the ones that expose humanity and I enjoyed the most.
I saw this on the Filmhouse Player a day after watching Rent-a-Cat, a film I’d recommend more.
Mary Margaret O’Hara is a singer-songwriter and a few of her videos are online: