When Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) and Johann (Bobby Sommer) first meet in a hallway at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, their conversation is limited to that between a lost tourist and sympathetic denizen. She is a cherubic middle-aged woman from Montreal visiting her ill cousin Janet, and he a watch-guard at the museum. Listening to Johann recite directions on how to get to the hospital where Janet is being treated for some undisclosed malady is not too interesting. However, as they resume talking in the museum, and we see images taken from paintings of village gatherings in the Middle Ages, self-portraits, and landscapes, we yearn for something more. Soon, personal boundaries between the two strangers dissolve as they travel the city together, sharing intimacies. Private becomes public and inside becomes outside. Director Jem Cohen knew well how to call attention to such dichotomies in his latest film, Museum Hours.
In a film about museums, a contemplative mood should be encouraged, if not nurtured. Cohen pushes us into a world of visual art here, impelling us to take a back seat and enjoy a variety of pieces displayed at the Kunsthistorisches, but not without a price. What are typically fleeting impressions of paintings and sculptures to a tourist visiting a museum in a foreign city, much like Anne, become intentionally pointed arguments on what a film about paintings and sculpture should be. Cohen makes use of a predicament: how a film camera simultaneously deconstructs a painting’s originality and orientation and provides new meaning for that painting as a whole due to that deconstruction. It is an argument once made by French film critic André Bazin, who stated in his essay Painting and Cinema, “The picture frame polarizes space inwards… what the [movie] screen shows us seems to be part of something prolonged indefinitely into the universe. A frame is centripetal, the screen centrifugal.” A wooden frame focuses our gaze on the canvas contained within. But as soon as the camera infiltrates the existing frame with its own frame, a compounded significance arises.
This outward and inward contextualization could not be more apparent, as Johann’s voice-over narration at points coincides with close-up details of works by several artists, including the famous Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel. In a ten-minute sequence during which a tour guide provides anecdotes of Bruegel’s life and her own interpretations of particular paintings to a mixed crowd (including a heckler), we as an audience have full liberty to identify minute details that could be overlooked with a cursory glance of the works—an egg in the far-left hand frame, a bone, a frying pan. For Bruegel, context is everything, almost to the degree that the focus of the painting is lost in a host of other commotion as he visually transcribes the events of a peasant fair, a wedding, or the “Conversion of St. Paul.” To have the chance to find pleasure in the smaller, often-neglected details of the paintings is a gift that is motif-forming.
As we move outside the walls of the museum with Anne and Johann and into the streets and bars of Vienna, the film becomes more or less an ode to the awe-inspiring European city that reflects the capacity to view details in paintings as well as paintings themselves in a museum environment. Cohen intermittently draws affiliations, as in his citation of the egg, bone, and frying pan as a dented beer can on a curb and a green glove abandoned in a park. Seamlessly joining Renaissance landscape paintings with modern Viennese intersections and empty canals, or self-portraits with pedestrians’ faces, life is transposed as the paintings and sculptures. When Johann comments that he is seeing his native city anew by assisting Anne, we are reminded that everything is on display for us, a sentiment Jem Cohen evidently keeps dear to his heart.