The centerpiece of Jem Cohen's Museum Hours is an 11-minute sequence in which a playful guest lecturer guides a tour group through the Bruegel exhibit at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, a tour watched from afar by narrator Johann (Bobby Sommer), a longtime guard at a gallery that doesn't need guarding. The scene's mixture of observation, insightfulness, and above all curiosity encapsulates much of the film's appeal. The guide's assertion that Bruegel's scenes of peasant life "are less quaint and more radical than they may appear" suggests a built-in counterargument to those inclined to dismiss Museum Hours for its apparent slightness. Museum Hours is largely set in and around its central institution, but, more broadly, it is a film about public spaces and the pleasures of observing the people and things within them. Johann becomes a tourist in his own city, an opportunity he welcomes when a visitor from Montreal, Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), expresses a desire to be guided beyond the museum walls. "What is it about some people that makes you curious," Johann wonders, "while with others one would be just as happy not to know anything about them?" Together, they discover Vienna--Anne for the first time, Johanna all over again. This exceptional film, a kind of hybrid between understated drama and essayistic tourism, approaches its subjects with uncommon patience and curiosity, lingering over objects and faces, conveying truths without authorial imposition. As Cohen's camera makes its rounds through the museum-- the interiors shot digitally, the outside on 16mm-- it is attuned to the everyday, soaking in local flavor and, in essence, defamiliarizing the banal.
Jem CohenMary Margaret O'Hara, Bobby Sommer, Ela PiplitsJem CohenCinema Guild