‘Museum Hours’ allows viewers the space to daydream

Bobby Sommer plays a low-key museum attendant in "Museum Hours." Credit: Cinema Guild
Bobby Sommer plays a low-key museum attendant in “Museum Hours.”
Credit: Cinema Guild

‘Museum Hours’
Director: Jem Cohen
Stars: Bobby Sommer, Mary Margaret O’Hara
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

A well-curated museum is more than a mere collection of objects. If done right, it has been carefully — but not too carefully — organized to allow ideas, styles and images to bounce off eachother. When we first see him, low-key museum attendant Johann (Bobby Sommer) is sitting still in one of the spacious rooms over which he lords. He looks like just another object. In a sense he is. In “Museum Hours,” director Jem Cohen treats Johann as he does the film’s other characters, sights and ideas: As objects, collected by him and arranged about the movie as one would decorate a museum space.

Johann dominates the film, in the sense that he gets the most screen time. The loose plot finds him befriending Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a Canadian tourist in Vienna to visit a terminally ill friend. Much like “Before Sunrise,” the two engage in a series of loose, ruminative conversations about culture, life and themselves. (One surprising revelation, in a film of many: The gentle Johann loves him some metal, as does Anne.) Unlike “Before Sunrise,” there’s no (or little) romantic tension, or even a sense that they’re really the film’s centerpiece.

Though Johann regularly pipes up on the soundtrack, our real guide is Cohen himself. A longtime documentarian whose most famous films involve music (he directed the much-loved “Instrument,” on Fugazi), he cuts away from his two stars to the things that surround them. Even when his camera sits with them for long stretches, the framing is decentered, placing them so that viewers’ eyes are encouraged to wander to other, equally (or more) interesting parts of the shots.

The film’s key scene involves neither Johann nor Anne, but an erudite tour guide patiently dealing with a mildly surly group of American tourists. As they discuss the massive, dense canvasses of the Flemish renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel, guide and visitors lightly but persistently argue over what’s a certain piece’s true center: The character identified by the title, or a young boy chosen by the guide after years of staring at the piece. Neither is right, and the guide eventually ends the debate with a slightly passive-aggressive “There’s no reason we all have to share my opinion.”

That could’ve been Cohen’s credo in making “Museum Hours,” which is incredibly open even as it occasionally nudges viewers in specific directions. It can get a bit milquetoast: The talk of time evaporating as one roams a museum and a detour about how many of the artists whose work sells for millions died penniless and miserable aren’t exactly philosophical bombshells. They come from the characters themselves, not Cohen, who uses them to encourage us to take a stance, or think about something else. The deeper thinking is left up to the viewer, and this incomparably gentle film — with no musical score and giant, fat chunks of quiet people watching — provides the space for minds to wander.


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