Museum Hours: Film Review

Arty brief encounters in contemporary Vienna.

Engagingly offbeat docu-drama draws links between Renaissance art and modern society.

LOCARNO -- Wintry Vienna provides the picturesque backdrop for this engrossing U.S.-Austrian co-production, a lightly experimental fusion of drama and documentary that has just premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. The writer-director Jem Cohen has built his career largely outside the commercial mainstream, though his work has been shown in the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney. Museum Hours is an unorthodox hybrid beast, but still the 50-year-old New Yorker’s most conventional dramatic feature to date. Full of charm, intelligence and dry humour, it deserves to find a discerning theatrical audience beyond Cohen’s usual festival-circuit following.
The cult Canadian singer and occasional actor Mary Margaret O’Hara gives an engagingly natural performance as Anne, a first-time visitor to the Austrian capital, where her distant cousin lies in a coma. There she meets urbane art museum guard Johann, played by non-professional actor Bobby Sommer, who kindly offers his services as a local guide and translator. The two form an easy non-sexual bond, walking and talking their way across the city like a middle-aged version of the couple in Richard Linklater’s Viennese rom-com Before Sunrise.
Cutting unobtrusively between 16mm and digital, Cohen interweaves this fragmentary plot with close-up studies of paintings from one of Vienna’s main art galleries, plus footage he gleaned while walking the city’s streets, random snapshots of minor characters and discursive musings on the social context of art. The focus is fuzzy and the pace leisurely, but deliberately so, as the director’s high-minded intentions slowly become clear.
One of the inspirational seeds of the film was the work of the 16th century Dutch painter Pieter Breughel, which figures prominently throughout the film. Breughel’s egalitarian approach to painting, giving background figures equal prominence with nominal headline stars, is discussed at length in a slightly stilted lecture scene. Cohen clearly admires this proto-modernist attitude to plot and character, adopting it himself in Museum Hours, with its diffuse and elliptical narrative.
Cohen has worked on promo videos, concert films and live collaborations with musicians including REM, Patti Smith, Fugazi and the late Vic Chesnutt. He cites punk rock as a career-shaping influence, which shows even in contemplative culture-vulture works like Museum Hours. Indeed, Smith and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto have producer credits, and the film is dedicated to Chesnutt. O’Hara is a singer too, of course, and her character breaks into song in several scenes. Sommer is also a musician and former rock promoter who now works for the Viennale film festival, where Cohen has been a regular guest for many years.
Museum Hours demands patience and engagement from viewers, and Cohen could comfortably cut 20 minutes without lessening its intellectual or aesthetic impact. But the film’s more arid and arty touches are offset by an appealing thread of understated humour, including deadpan musings on heavy metal and the lazy leftist notion of “late capitalism."
At the heart of the film is an absorbing argument that dusty old artworks have plenty to tell us about contemporary life -- especially about money, politics, power, social class and sex. Cohen makes this point in a brief but inspired fantasy sequence, filling the art gallery with naked customers. Later, he reiterates the message by framing modern Viennese street scenes as animated paintings that Johan then deconstructs in the language of art criticism. Cerebral stuff, but all delivered with warmth, wit and quiet confidence.
Venue: Locarno Film Festival
Production companies: Little Magnet Films, Gravity Hill Films, KGP GmbH
Cast: Mary Margaret O’Hara, Bobby Sommer, Ela Piplits
Director: Jem Cohen
Producers: Paolo Calamitra, Gabriele Kranzelbinder, Jem Cohen, Patti Smith, Guy Picciotto
Cinematography: Jem Cohen, Peter Roehsler
Editor: Jem Cohen, Mark Vives
Sales companies: Little Magnet Films
Rating TBC, 107 minutes