With the aid of helmer Jem Cohen’s focused eye, auds as well as protags learn to view art and the world around them through complementary lenses in the warmly intellectualized “Museum Hours.” At once intimate and expansive, the pic uses the chance encounter between a Canadian visitor and a museum guard at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum to explore how it’s possible to see transcendence even in the mundane. Results are self-consciously arty yet accessible to those willing to have their minds expanded; fest viewers will happily wile away “Hours” before targeted arthouse play.
Cohen (“Chain”) dexterously balances narrative with visual and verbal exposition, training the eye to seek out details and match them with similar elements on canvas and in real life. In a sense, he’s taken up the mantle of art historian Aby Warburg, who exhorted his students to find thematic and formal parallels in art as a way of educating the eye toward connoisseurship. Though the helmer occasionally allows a bald didacticism to creep in, it’s used as a way of getting viewers to make their own judgments.
Janet (Mary Margaret O’Hara) flies to Vienna after hearing that a cousin is comatose in a hospital. Her first stop in town is the museum, where she asks guard Johann (Bobby Sommer) for directions to the medical center. With repeat museum trips, these two lonely people strike up a platonic friendship, and he even accompanies her on hospital visits.
Both are at an in-between stage of their lives, yet the script isn’t interested in filling in too much background. They are who they appear to be, opening themselves up after a period of inner focus, and the conduit for this expansion is an appreciation of their surroundings. Cohen juxtaposes closeups of casual objects in a painting, like a broken eggshell, with shots of a discarded cigarette butt or a beer can, guiding the beholder to contemplate the wonder of the small touch; even detritus from a flea market, lying in the slush, becomes an object for consideration, and there’s no question that Janet and Johann are stand-ins for the audience as a whole.
It’s this minor key that plays out best in the pic, especially when contrasted with the too-explicit verbalization of visiting docent Gerda (Ela Piplits) lecturing to museum visitors about Brueghel. Her gallery talk exhorts listeners to appreciate the artist’s cacophony of detail, which famously put his paintings’ ostensible subject on the same level as the incidental. The lesson is overstated, and Piplits’ delivery artificial (plus, the people cast as her tour group can’t act); something a bit less obvious would jive better with the subtlety Cohen demonstrates elsewhere.
Similarly, a fantasy scene of nude museum visitors, coming immediately after Janet remarks on the lack of shame in Lucas Cranach’s naked “Adam and Eve,” is heavyhanded and inadvertently seems like a parody of a Thomas Struth photograph. Despite such missteps, Cohen’s overall strategy is deeply satisfying. He’s got a marvelous eye for detail, not just in artwork but in the world around him, and appears to be following Raymond Depardon’s style of avoiding picture-postcard sites, and instead bringing out what’s notable in the everyday and ignored.
Exteriors were lensed on Super 16, retaining a sense of texture even after their digital transfer; interiors, shot on HD, are clean without being harsh. Minor sequences, such as shifting light within the hospital room, or Janet singing softly to herself, have their own mesmerizing power, yet Cohen knows that nothing will ever beat the wonder of a closeup of Rembrandt’s brushwork.