Museum Hours

During his 20-year career, Jem Cohen has shown his films in museum auditoriums more often than in commercial theaters. So it's fitting that Museum Hours, the arty documentarian's latest feature-length effort, is so indebted to Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum. Cohen likes to happen upon stories and images, and the 19th-century Austrian culture palace is brimming with both.

Humane and gently witty, the movie was inspired by the museum's gallery of paintings by Pieter Breughel, who's known for crowded compositions and attention to the details of everyday life. If the 16th-century Dutch painter's vision seems haphazard and his subject matters unfixed, that's much like Cohen's films, though Museum Hours does have more of a story than the director's previous fiction-documentary hybrids.

Anne, our protagonist, arrives in Vienna from Montreal, speaking no German. She's there to visit a gravely ill cousin, but the patient is in a coma, so in actuality Anne has little to do. In solitude, she begins visiting the Museum, where she meets Johann, a security guard. The two become platonic friends — Johann will eventually reveal that he's gay — and as they do, the native introduces the visitor both to the museum's collection and to everyday Vienna.

One of the movie's conduits between art and life, of course, is Breughel, whose art is the subject of a short lecture delivered by a guide in the gallery full of his canvases. That talk recalls the expert testimony Jean-Luc Godard inserted into some of his 1960s films. But in this case the expert is Cohen: He scripted the lecture.

Ultimately, the movie's easygoing narrative turns to loss, but without melodrama. An awareness of life and art offers perspective, and perhaps a measure of consolation.

- Mark Jenkins, NPR


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