Museum Hours: The Profoundity of Silent Images

Museum Hours (2012/2013)
Directed by Jem Cohen
The Cinema Guild, 107 minutes, Unrated. In German & English.
* * * *

Not much happens in Museum Hours, but surrender to this gorgeous small film and you will be mightily rewarded. And, thanks to a 2013 North American release in theaters and DVD, you’ll have your chance.

The film’s thin story centers on Anne (Margaret O’Hare), an Irish-Canadian woman forced to scrape together and borrow money to make an emergency trip to Vienna in the dead of winter, where her cousin lies mortally ill in a hospital. All she can do is wait and stretch her meager cash stream as best she can. Tea, cheap pubs, a drafty down-market hotel room, and trips to the Kunsthistorisches Museum are about all she can manage, but she’s enthralled by the latter, especially the paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Anne spends so much time in the museum that she eventually strikes a friendship with Johann (Bobby Somers), a former hard-rock music manager who fled club madness for a tranquil life as a museum guard. After hours, Johann shows Anne his Vienna–an ordinary city bathed in gray by the weak wintery light, not the glitzy Vienna of opera and the haute bourgeoisie. A love affair? Not as you’d anticipate.

The film feels like a documentary, a mood enhanced by the lack of an accompanying musical score. There are long shots in which the camera pans museum walls and lingers on a mystical Tintoretto, a lush Raphael, or a moody Rembrandt. The pacing is languid, but it’s hard not be drawn in by gorgeous cinematography and razor sharp images produced by filming in a 1.78:1 high definition aspect ratio. It’s not quite 35mm quality, but it’s as close as I’ve seen in a while. And the film needs to move slowly because its real star is a dead man: Brueghel.

Brueghel is often lumped with Hieronymus Bosch as a painter of debauchery and post-apocalyptic horrors. Not so, as art docent Gerda Pachner (Ela Piplits) points out to a sceptical groups of visitors. She, the camera, Anne, and Johann force us to look deeply into Brueghel’s works to observe the mundane details. Through clever crosscutting between the paintings and perambulations through Vienna, Brueghel appears more as a documentarian committing daily life to canvass in both its prosaic and dramatic specifics. Did Brueghel paint fantasized deformities, reprobates, and horrors? Have you taken a good look around your world these days? How would they look on canvas in 600 years? And do we even see the mundane parts of life that Brueghel so lovingly rendered? Must we confront death to appreciate how precious those moments are? Indeed, this film suggests that sex, gluttony, food, beauty, horror, and death are the prosaic reality in all periods of history.

I won’t pretend that this film will be everyone’s bowl of gruel, but I found that it provoked more thought in its silences than most films inspire in their monologues. --Rob Weir

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