Museum Hours – Jem Cohen’s masterpiece. (Film Review)


Our relationship to art in all its forms, but particularly visual, is contextualised by the political, economic, social and cultural factors that surround it and inform our appreciation, and yet art retains the ability to mean whatever those contexts need, as well as defy the great impositions of the technological age. Reprints can’t replace the experience of standing before a masterwork, and in this way they defy commodification, particularly now that they are removed from the private wealthy walls of collectors and placed in gallery’s where the entrance is free. Museum walls stand separate from money – you can look at the priceless and receive its message for free.

Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a Museum attendant at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna. He spends his day in reflection, dwelling on the art before him or the people who move around in front of him, using the same observational practise on the art or the people looking at the art, almost as if they are the same kind of thing. He befriends a Canadian visitor, Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) who is in Vienna on borrowed money to visit her cousin who lies in hospital in a coma. Johann lives a quiet life filled with the joy of reflection, at nights playing on-line poker, enjoying cafes and bars alone, always observing in a timeless judgement-free mental acknowledgement of the beautiful. Anne is a part-time singer who depends on her friends for employment, and has very few resources to call her own. She frequents flea markets, drinks water in bars and cafes and visits places that are free when she has to kill her time. As the pair, who never cross the socially appropriate barriers between them become confidants, talking and walking around Vienna, Anne’s perspective, delivered through her questions about the city, and Johann’s suggested sight-seeing, bring an artistic awareness to the everyday so that Jem Cohen connects the two strangers through photograph like stills of a Vienna rarely seen.


The strangers have something to offer each other: Anne draws Johann out of his monastic existence her flesh and blood presence quietly coaxing Johann into communion with the other, and Johann generous warmth and acceptance acting as a balm against Anne’s injured existence and her distress over the illness of her cousin, but one of the film’s remarkable qualities is that by the time we reach a sort of zenith of awareness of the individual character narratives, the film has grown into its own universe, including themes such as time, death, memory, beauty, and the fluctuating nature of the observed object, be they paintings in a museum or railway yards, buildings or pigeons. It is here that I was reminded of Godard, a lot of dialogue takes place with the camera focussed on the listener rather than the speaker, sometimes even shooting from behind the speaker, emphasising the distance between speaker and listener as if the words have such a long way to travel. And as she allows Vienna to brush through her and over her, Anne is a modern-day, older Nana, the focal point of our observation and yet the pivot for our expansive awareness. Make no mistake, this is not a Godard-esque film, the thematic stylings are far too subtle, but in its reach It took me to Vivre Sa Vie.


Blurring the differences between fiction and documentary film making, Cohen dots the travels of Johann and Anne with snippets about Vienna related through Johann’s accented English or detail about certain rooms and paintings in the museum. These informational asides, however, gradually lose the function of appraisal and take on a broader awareness than the observations of the protagonists, becoming the films function in itself, a constant reminder of the ever-shifting vastness of objects, places, people and things, so that when the attention refocuses on the speaking couple they come to represent a prodigious humanity perpetually bolstering as the film continues. This is achieved through the subversion of traditional story telling modes, such as plot and conflict, the framework on which other films hang, focussing rather on the fluid characterisation, ever-expanding outside of each individual’s personal trajectory until we forget the small details that go into making up the usual plot points of a characters journey. Through Jem Cohen we never lose sight of Johann and Anna, rather they grow with the awareness of a broader narrative.


Cohen mirrors this attention on his characters with a focus on objects, that also take on symbolic meaning far beyond their intimate context. A green coat, a broken childs toy at a flea market, and then beyond the object to the snapshot of Vienna; a semi-secret Vienna away from the regular tourist traps and closer to the day-to-day, that still holds all the beauty and majesty of the intricacies of relationship and the magnificence of the art works. Museum Hours is not a film for everyone, even if it should be. It challenges the idea of what a film is and is motion is languid, much like wandering through a museum itself, quiet, paced and reflective. However, it is easily the best film of 2013, and a must see for anyone interested in what films can still achieve.