Filmmaker Jem Cohen has always made a study of vagrant, accidental beauty — from his urban essay films to the feature “Chain,” set in the midst of America’s vast corporate wasteland.
With “Museum Hours,” Cohen has brought all of his philosophical aesthetic preoccupations to bear on a work that, while hewing to his career-long concerns, also represents a significant leap forward. More conventionally narrative than his previous films — but still boldly bucking convention when it comes to story, character and structure — “Museum Hours” is every bit as masterfully conceived and executed as the artworks that serve as the film’s lively cast of supporting characters.
Canadian musician Mary Margaret O’Hara plays Anne, who is called to Vienna unexpectedly when a distant cousin falls ill. When Anne slips into the grand Kunsthistorisches Museum, she strikes up a conversation with a guard named Johann (Bobby Sommer), and the two embark on a tentative friendship that eventually takes them beyond the bounds of the art museum’s hushed galleries and into a city filled with pain, beauty, humor and fleeting moments of transcendence.
Cohen had nearly unfettered access to the Kunsthistorisches, where he films the museum’s collection of Brueghels with an eye toward their uncanny contemporary resonance — echoes made more palpable when he pulls the lens back to take in present-day museum visitors, whose own faces and bodies take on the sculptural grace and expressiveness of the pieces they’re contemplating. Like Brueghel, Cohen is drawn to the margins, resisting the hierarchy of foreground-vs.-background.
O’Hara and Sommer possess a winsome, gently teasing chemistry that, through their wonderfully improvisatory performances, takes the shape of a relationship spontaneously growing before our very eyes. Cohen is too much of an iconoclast to force Anne and Johann into the traditional meet-cute, happy-ending romance, but part of the mystery of “Museum Hours” is wondering — and coming to care deeply about — what form their delicate alliance might take.
Like any collection of works of art, “Museum Hours” can be enjoyed on a multitude of levels: as a chance to see the Kunsthistorische’s riches; as yet another travelogue of Vienna (joining a film tradition that spans “The Third Man” and “Before Sunrise”); as an unorthodox love story; as a slice of rootless, cosmopolitan life; as an experiment in rigorously un-coercive cinema.
Whether viewers take one or all of these perspectives, they’ll come away from “Museum Hours” with a refreshed sense of their own world, bursting with questions about what we choose to elevate as art and how we might identify the poetic contours of our own lives. By radically shifting the frame, Cohen allows everyone — including his audience — to put themselves in the picture.