People visit the great art museums of the world hoping to find meaning by getting lost in the work. In Jem Cohen's lovely Austrian film Museum Hours, two solitary souls fall into a deep yet temporary friendship under the watchful yet passive gaze of subjects long dead but forever frozen in paint.
Johann (Bobby Sommer) works as a guard in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum and, despite the seeming tedium, feels privileged to be privy to overheard conversations about the power of art to inspire, perplex, and move people. In a reflective voice-over, he talks about having been a woodworking teacher constantly assaulted by the din of buzz saws and the manager of a rock band. At last, as he puts it, he's found "after my share of loud, a share of quiet."
He's approached for directions one day by a Canadian woman named Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), who's in Vienna to attend the bedside of a distant cousin lingering in a coma. Because she's new to the city and alone, she's open to company, and Johann assigns himself the role of tour guide in his off hours. It's a position he whole-heartedly embraces and she helps him see his city with fresh eyes.
During rests from their jaunts, they sip coffee or harder beverages and talk. Perhaps wondering why this man has so much time for her, she asks him if he has friends he doesn't see anymore. He replies, "My partner, my ex-partner, is long gone." She apologizes for prying, which he shrugs off, but the unexpected intimacy jerks them back to more abstract conversations.
There is, too, a welcome side plot about the historical importance of Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel. Johann often requests that his guard duties be in the Museum's Bruegel Room, where he's surrounded by the artist's densely populated and eccentric portraits of peasants at work or play, and a conversation viewers are privy to is a docent’s instructive lecture about how fresh and innovative Bruegel’s work was at the time he created it.
Though both looking at the art and eavesdropping on this uncomplicated relationship offers no overt action or drama, the movie isn't inexpressive in serving up a surfeit of simple pleasures.
Museum Hours| Dir. Jem Cohen | 106 minutes | Playing at Tivoli Cinemas