Have you ever thought what it would be like to find yourself alone in a strange foreign city with no reference points, no human connections, no means of communication?
That’s the position Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) finds herself in in filmmaker Jem Cohen’s lyric poem of a film, Museum Hours. She has come to Vienna from Canada to sit by the hospital bedside of her dying cousin, to talk and sing to her in hopes of penetrating her coma. And when she is not at the hospital, how does she fill the rest of her unfocused days?
How she fills her days is how Cohen fills his film: he looks at the city in slow motion, through the eyes of a stranger, and records the facades of buildings, neighborhood shops, and people moving slowly through the dense gray mist of winter. He observes them all from the middle distance.
Eventually Anne makes her way to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, a treasure house of classical art, where she finds Johann (Bobby Sommer), a guard who speaks English and instructs her on how to maneuver through the city. He also guides her through the museum’s magnificent collection of Dutch, Flemish, and German paintings.
If you had been a docent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as I was for eleven years, you would find this tour of Vienna’s prime museum a thrilling experience. At one point (the high point for me) an Austrian docent (Ela Piplits) gives a mesmerizing account of a series of works by Brueghel, adding her own inspired interpretations to the discussion.
And here the process of looking at and truly seeing the works of art encourages the viewer to see the city and all its mundane dailiness in a richer and more profound context.
But all the art and the beauty of the city is really only the backdrop to the film’s major theme: friendship. As Johann and Anne continue to meet, he takes on the role of tour guide, escorting her through out-of-the-way corners of Vienna and talking with her for hours.
Johann is a lonely but contented man. As he tells us in voice-over, he enjoys his work, he loves the paintings, and he likes observing the people who come to the museum. In fact, we learn much more about him than we do about Anne. She remains an undiscovered island. We don’t know if she has ever been married, or what she does for a living, or anything about her emotional life. But she is a compelling personality nevertheless, and we like her for her warmth and her kindness and her spirit.
If this were a Hollywood movie, there would be s love story involved. But aside from the fact that Johann is gay, this is a loving friendship, not a sexual fantasy, between two ships that pass in the night.
This is a lovely, satisfying movie, but it comes with a warning: there Is very little action, conducted very slowly, and there are long gaps filled with extraneous blips that the film could well do without. So be prepared to physically disengage every once in a while.
This film is not for everyone.
Photo: Brueghel’s Tower of Babel in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna