At the Movies: ‘Museum Hours’

Thanks to the [suitably] understated manner in which it slipped into the art-house schedules, I nearly missed Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, which would have been a great shame as, to my eyes, it’s pretty near perfect.

Beginning with the camera focussed on a section of a Brueghel painting showing bare trees and a sparse scattering of black birds, and cutting to a shot of actual trees, actual birds, not the same but similar, Cohen’s film is a sort of meditation on looking, on the links between art and actuality, and the way people see – or don’t see – those connections.

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Filmed partly within the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna and partly in the less glamorous parts of the city itself, the film is threaded together by the meeting and subsequent friendship between Johaann, one of the museum guards, and Anne, a Canadian woman who has come to Vienna to visit a relative who is seriously ill  in hospital. There’s no big romance, few in any intimations of longing; this is no big love story in the making. They get to know one another a little, she gets to know some more about the city and about the museum’s paintings, the Bruegel room in particular, and then they go their separate ways. The paintings remain.

As I say, it’s close to a perfect little film. And without being in any sense pushy or didactic, it makes you think. And, most importantly, look.

Anne, the visitor, is played with restraint and a wonderful sort of fading beauty by the Canadian folk singer, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Johaann with quiet believablity by Bobby Sommer. Jem Cohen, I discovered, has been making films, mostly, I think, documentaries, for years – Lost Book Found, set on the streets of New York City, seems like one to look out for. And I was ingtrigued to learn that he was involved in the making of a documentary about the late Vic Chesnutt, Peter Sillen’s Speed Racer.