In Museum Hours, director Jem Cohen does this beautiful trick where he takes images of Vienna’s cityscape (a dreary playground, for instance, or a remnant of WWII anti-air weaponry), and splices them together with bits of old paintings, the oily images of which fool you briefly for reality. The technique produces a lovely little feeling, a sort of emotional reminder that art reflects life, and vice versa.
We see a similarly simple and fantastic movement in another scene. Here, in Austria’s prestigious Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, where much of the movie takes place, we see a young woman looking at a painting. She’s not wearing any make-up. She’s pretty, alone. Behind her, on a bench, sits an middle-aged woman with a magazine; she’s heavyset, seemingly resting. The two are ordinary, the very thing you’d expect to see in a museum, although they’re not exactly what you’re there to see. But Cohen changes that; he turns them into art. Suddenly, the director strips the young woman and the lady of their clothes. It’s as if the rapture had occurred, and they’d turned to angels. The ordinary becomes sublime, in a second.
That’s the joy of Museum Hours. It highlights, through art, the little happinesses life grants us between the all tedium and tragedies.
Speaking of which, tragedy is where we start. We see Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) asking a friend for money so she can fly to Austria, because a relative of hers fell into a coma. Our Canadian protagonist, whose getting on in years, is totally lost in this country. She has no German, and can hardly find the hospital. But she does find the museum.
In the Kunsthistorisches, she meets a guard named Johann (Bobby Sommer), who shows her where the hospital is, and gives her a museum pass. Eventually, the two become friends. That’s it. Just friends. The lack of a passionate or sexual relationship between the two is weirdly refreshing. Watching them talk awkwardly in cafes is the most natural, and soothing, thing in the world. Some might find such scenes boring, but to me they struck marvelously true. I mean: This is generally how things go, right? When terrible things happen, one doesn’t up and fall into a love affair with a beautiful person. Instead, we rely on friends, some of which we make on the fly.
These tiny and beautiful conversations in Museum Hours mirror paintings that Cohen — who also wrote and edited the film — chose to highlight. In particular, there’s the work of Brueghel. His famous “Hunters in the Snow” is in the film, along with his surreal “The Tower of Babel,” and many others. In a prominent scene, we follow a Brueghel expert as she walks through the museum, telling her audience (and us) that Brueghel was a painter of the common folk. He documented their lives, but didn’t sentimentalize them. Cohen works in much the same way. His film is about common people with common problems. And like a trip to the museum, sometimes the movie lags, seems to have no direction or energy; but then you see something clever or something wonderful, and, if only for a second, you feel joy. And that gets you through, as often in life.