By Joan Ellis
Abandon expectations, all ye who enter here.
Museum Hours is a fine new film unlike anything we are accustomed to. It asks only that we banish our everyday concerns and follow its gentle path.
Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a security guard in the Kunsthistortisches Art Museum in Vienna. He loves the peace of the place after the noise of his previous job as a manager of rock groups. He shifts between studying the expressions of visitors to the gallery and exploring the paintings that hang on its walls.
On one ordinary day, Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) walks into his life, a visitor from Montreal who has come to Vienna to sit with her cousin who lies in a coma in the hospital. Johann becomes her guide – and ours – to his gallery and his city. As they talk, paintings and city slide seamlessly together as art. Their quiet voices and long silences encourage us to absorb what we see with new eyes.
We see Vienna – its bridges, streets and buildings – in its smallest details, a discarded green can against white concrete, an angled corner of a building and old woman climbing a hill. Ordinarily we pass such things quickly in our distraction, but Johann sees Vienna with the same curiosity he brings to the paintings in the gallery. That becomes one of the film’s gifts to us. This is not a tourist’s look at Vienna, but an artist’s view of its details.
In the Breugel gallery, Johann’s favorite place, silent visitors stare intently at the paintings through their own perspectives while Gerda (Ela Piplits), an art historian, reminds us that “a painting carries its time with it.” We begin to look more closely at detail that plants his painting in events of its time – rituals from varied areas of contemporary life pulled together as if they were happening in the same moment. We have time to wonder why Gerda – given a number of possibilities – sees a small boy in one painting as “the center of the turning of the earth.”
Writer/director Jem Cohen, in close concert with cinematographer Peter Roehsler, has created a magical movie that moves along at such a leisurely pace that we have the luxury of sinking into it and to love what happens to us as we do.
It’s seldom that we feel the texture of a mown field turning pale yellow as it dries from live to crunch underfoot. Or that we take the time to stare at a baby in a tourist’s arms long enough for him to becoming a painting. Or to watch Johann sitting still in front of the immense dark oak doors of his gallery, a portrait.
We may continue to search Flemish and Dutch paintings for clues to the culture of their times, but because of this original, intelligent movie, we are also likely to look at the details of our own time in a very different way.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.