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With: Mary Margaret O'Hara, Bobby Sommer, Ela Piplits
Written by: Jem Cohen
Directed by: Jem Cohen
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: English, German, with English subtitles
Running Time: 107
Date: 09/20/2013

Museum Hours (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Bruegel Gourmets

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Very few movies quite like Museum Hours ever come along. It's a movie that understands time and space as things of reflection, rather than as forward momentum. This movie isn't in a hurry. It doesn't forget moments of characters thinking and speaking in order to get back to some arbitrary plot, climax, or ending. It's merely about a couple of people who happen to be in a certain place in a certain time and find a connection.

Johann (Bobby Sommer) is in his 60s and works as a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which is known for its collection of Bruegels. Johann isn't stuffy. He used to work in the heavy metal music biz and claims to like Judas Priest. But after years at the museum, he has some observances about the people that come there and they way they view the paintings. He murmurs these observances in voiceover, while overseeing the many quiet rooms, filled with art and silence.

A Canadian woman, Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), arrives in town to visit a cousin in the hospital. The cousin is in a coma, and may not last long, so Anne spends her time wandering, and perhaps lost, in the city. It's cold outside and the museum is warm. She asks Johann for directions. They end up talking and spending time together after work. This is not to imply that anything happens, such as sex, or a romance, or a breakup, or a silly complication. (It's eventually revealed that Johann is gay.) No... they just find each other and spend time together. That's it. They share their thoughts and observances.

Anne reports to him the things she has seen around Vienna, such as the outline of a building that's no longer there. Anne is not the most articulate soul, but she notices things, and being in a strange city for an undetermined amount of time has given her ample time to notice them. She and Johann have that in common.

In another scene, a tour guide (Ela Piplits) tries to explain the mysteries of some of the paintings to an impatient crowd, and she keeps up her passion throughout her speech, eventually admitting that others need not share her opinions. The sequence sneaks up on you, and it has begun without you realizing it, and before you know it, you're in the tour group, looking closely at the paintings and taking in their wonders.

Director Jem Cohen is American, and a director of music videos (for R.E.M., Fugazi, and Vic Chesnutt), and documentaries. Some of this movie is in English, but much of it is in German, with English subtitles. Much of it feels like a documentary. Cohen observes many people coming and going in the museum, absorbing certain works of art. That's how he sneaks in the more important characters. There's no big introduction. They just show up during a normal day.

I suppose the only other movie that's remotely like this one is Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark (2002), which had the unique gimmick of using a single camera shot to move through time and through the Hermitage museum. That movie was easy to describe compared to this one, but Museum Hours has a certain spell that is better experienced than described. It will pull in the world's bravest and most open-hearted viewers. Many of them will find themselves intellectually fulfilled, but also spiritually satisfied.

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