It’s not the most academic way to consider a film, but for me, there are some works that you just want to go live inside of; their ideas are so rich, their characters so vivid, their surroundings so inviting that you wish you could traverse the barrier between the image and yourself. Jem Cohen’s sublime Museum Hours (2013), my favorite film of the year, is one of these films, and fortunately, it’s a work that’s very interested in blurring the line between art and life. Cohen owes little to what we think of as traditional naturalism, but Museum Hours is nonetheless an exceptionally lifelike film, blending city symphony and Chris Marker-style essay with a deep appreciation for meaningful art and meaningful relationships.
Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) is a first-time visitor to Vienna, drawn there when a cousin falls into a coma and her name and contact information still match in an old address book. Anne begins to spend a great deal of time at the famed Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, where she strikes up a friendship with museum guard Johann (Bobby Sommer), whose warm, inquisitive and reflective narration punctuates the film. He becomes her interpreter, communicating with the hospital about her cousin’s stagnant condition, and her tour guide, showing her the spots in the city he loves.
Cohen’s camera drinks in deeply the sights of Vienna in shots that one might be tempted to think of as POV shots, except they’re not quite. Cohen turns his audience members into participants with these subjective shot choices, taking us along with Anne and Johann and allowing us to see the buildings, the monuments, the people, even the trash on the ground with as if with our own eyes.
This contemplative mood extends to the sequences inside the museum, where the camera lingers over the visages of statues and the textures of paintings. Cohen’s associative editing will occasionally draw parallels between the art and the real — museum visitors’ faces comingle with the statues, birds in a painting seem to dissolve into the real thing on a telephone wire outside, bits of refuse painted in the corner of an artwork look like the cigarette butts and wads of paper littered in the street. The associations sometimes take a beguiling turn; one of the film’s many delightfully playful moments occurs when a museum visitor on the edge of the frame suddenly turns and looks directly into the lens before Cohen quickly cuts away. The spectator of art has become the object of the audience’s gaze; is the distinction between life and art, between what’s on either side of the screen all that distinct?
In the film, Johann’s favorite room of the museum is the one dedicated to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Bruegel’s inclusive, observant and deceptively radical paintings are mirrored by Cohen’s construction of Museum Hours. In the film, a guest lecturer (Ela Piplits) takes a tour group through Bruegel’s work, explaining his devotion to accurately chronicling peasant life and the way in which the ostensible subject of the painting — often a religious retelling, such as Paul’s conversion or Christ carrying the cross — wasn’t necessarily the focal point. Piplits’ passionate defense of the openness of art could apply to Museum Hours as well; here’s a film where you’re encouraged to let your gaze wander around the frame and your mind along with it.
Cohen, whose background is primarily in nonfiction, is obviously deeply invested in the parts of the film that more closely resemble documentary, but the film’s essayistic elements cohere perfectly with O’Hara and Sommer’s performances, somewhat scripted and somewhat improvised but wholly sincere no matter which is the case. There’s nothing rigid about the depiction of their blossoming friendship, no dramatic expectation that their interactions must play out in any sort of arc, and the result is some of the most honest and true depictions of thinking, feeling human beings I’ve seen on film. When Johann describes some of the museum’s paintings to Anne’s unconscious cousin, in the off chance that she might be able to hear, it’s less of a performance than a person’s innate passion that we see on the screen. Same goes for O’Hara’s lovely, elegiac songs.
Among its many ideas, Museum Hours posits that the art that means the most is the art that reflects some facet of life. By that standard, Museum Hours is an exceptionally meaningful film, the kind I greatly look forward to inhabiting the same space as many more times over the years.
Cinema Guild’s Blu-ray release of Museum Hours presents the film in 1080p high definition and a screen-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Cohen shot Vienna exteriors on 16mm and interiors digitally, and the transfer faithfully recreates the look of both formats. 16mm sequences feature a clean, prominent grain structure, while digital sequences are comparably smoother. Fine detail is apparent in both shooting formats; the textures and brush strokes of a number of paintings, captured in unhurried close-up, are especially tangible.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is a mostly front-channel affair, but the quiet track is noticeably immersive in museum sequences where the patter of footsteps and hushed whispers of observers make it seem as if you’re really there. Cohen’s use of nat sound is one of the film’s sensual pleasures, and the soundtrack here accurately captures that.
As is expected from their well-curated releases, Cinema Guild has lined up an excellent selection of contextualizing bonus features, including three short films. The extras on this release are:
- Amber City (1999, 48 minutes) Cohen’s Marker-like 16mm documentary about an unnamed Italian city was commissioned by arts organization Ondavideo, and the verité visuals are paired with a wry, not totally factual narration track that describes a city thought to be on the verge of extinction, but that persists nonetheless.
- Anne Truitt, Working (2009, 13 minutes) A black-and-white 16mm portrait of the minimalist sculpture artist, capturing her unconventional thoughts on art and her rapturous explanations of her use of color.
- Museum (Visiting the Unknown Man) (1997, 8 minutes) A silent Super 8 film that presages Museum Hours in its reverent images of works of art in a museum.
- Alternate English voiceover track. Sommer has recorded an English version of his German narration that plays in the original version of the film.
- Theatrical trailer and festival trailer
- 22-page booklet featuring an essay by critic Luc Sante and writings by Cohen about the production process, his conception of the film and various assorted notes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Cinema Guild’s Museum Hours Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
New Extra Features: ***1/2
Extra Features Overall: ***1/2
2013 / Color / 1:78:1 / 107 min / $34.95