Cinema Review: Museum Hours



DIR: Jem Cohen • WRI: Simon Barrett • PRO: Paolo Calamita, Jem Cohen, Gabriele Kranzelbinder  • DOP: Jem Cohen, Peter Roehsler • ED: Jem Cohen, Marc Vives • CAST:  Mary Margaret O’Hara, Bobby Sommer, Ela Piplit

Museum Hours is nominally the story of Johann (Bobby Sommer), a museum guard in Vienna who befriends Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara). Anne has travelled alone to Vienna, having received a call that a cousin she had not seen in years is in a coma and has no other living relatives. Johann and Anne become friends as he teaches her about the art in the museum and brings her around the city. This provides the necessary framing device for the director’s exploration of art, modern civilisation and the notions of artistic interpretation.Jem Cohen has never been known for his mass appeal or mainstream leanings and this film is no exception. If you lack the patience to sit through a film with only a basic amount of plot, very slow, deliberate pacing and what could be argued as ill-discipline; then this film will do nothing to accommodate you. However, if you can watch a film without the need for an action scene or one-liner every few minutes, this film offers an interesting and rewarding, if slightly unfocused, experience.As mentioned, it could be argued that the film is ill-disciplined but that argument is somewhat moot as this film doesn’t really fit under the regular criteria. It’s a film of philosophical musings and fly-on-the-wall shots of the city and its inhabitants that are treated like ‘live’ paintings. The plot and characters are more of a delivery system and method by which the director has an excuse to move on to the next set of shots/‘live’ paintings. These are all interesting and beautifully constructed. The deliberately slow pace offers ample time to reflect on the images being shown and consider what they’re being contrasted with. The experience of being led around the museum, and indeed the city, can be mesmeric at times while never becoming too impenetrable thanks to its extremely likable central characters.

If there is one major issue, it’s that the film feels heavy-handed with its messages while simultaneously seeming to deny the very notion of art having intended meanings. The voice-over where Johann recounts discussions about late capitalism that he had with a young college student, the endless (beautifully photographed) shots of Vienna looking lived-in and slightly decaying, and the constant juxtaposition of the pristine museum and art with the poorer classes of the city; all seem to point towards a negative view of modern civilisation. But then, right around the middle of the film we abandon the main characters to follow an art lecturer (Ela Piplits) around the museum as she discusses a particular artist’s work and the meanings of the paintings.

She initially reinforces even further this depiction of a downtrodden underclass through the art but also freely admits that the notion of art as having fixed meanings or even a clear intent on the author’s part for us to interpret strikes her as difficult to fully accept. Johann’s own views of the past seem to complement this. Despite his constant discussions of the past and past events (both historically and personally) he never endorses a view of blind sentimentalism and understands that the present and the past are merely different. The past is not an iron-cast ideal for which the present must be compared unfavourably to. Rather it all exists on a fluid continuum of subjective experience just like the interpretations of the art in the museum and the modern city life (and its people) which Cohen contrasts the museum pieces with.

While this is still technically a film, it feels more like what it’s depicting; a piece meant to be viewed as one would view a piece of art in a museum or gallery. It is meant to be looked at, its images scrutinised for personal interpretations of the author’s intent or simply admired for their constructions. While its various elements never quite coalesce into a cohesive whole, each one of those elements is in and of itself well executed. The characters are disarmingly naturalistic and human. The screenplay is not only invisible, it feels non-existent. These are simply people, not characters. O’Hara especially doesn’t feel like an actor giving a performance but a real woman who the filmmaker happened to be filming. It is regrettable that the film doesn’t spend more time with them but only to the same extent that it denies total focus on any of its elements. All of which are equally well constructed even if some seem to contradict each other such as the previously discussed denial of authorial intent while also unsubtly hammering home its own.

While certainly not a film for everyone, Museum Hours is varied enough and encourages subjective interpretations of itself to such a degree that you’re likely to find something of interest within it provided you have the patience for it. In that sense, you could say it successfully captures the experience of an actual museum or gallery. And given how it actively blurs the line between feature film and art installation, perhaps that’s the point.

Richard Drumm 


106 mins
Museum Hours is released on 6th September 2013

Museum Hours – Official Website


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