LOS ANGELES – Jem Cohen’s “Museum Hours” is difficult to describe but not to enjoy. An observational quasi-documentary with a fictional overlay, it’s a film whose pleasures are much more visual than dramatic, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious things on its mind.
Set in Vienna in general and the metropolis’ venerable Kunsthistorisches Museum in particular, “Museum Hours” is very different from but brings to mind Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 “Russian Ark,” another film that gets its spirit from using a great art museum (in that case, Russia’s Hermitage) as a setting.
By bringing strangers together in this space – a Vienna museum guard and a woman from another country – “Museum Hours” evokes themes of random companionship and shared humanity.
But what interests the director even more is the power of art to move individuals, not only the people on-screen but those in the audience watching the visual tapestry unfold. This film examines the art in this particular museum, but it’s also an artwork in and of itself that rewards detailed observation. Cohen’s goal, he says in a director’s statement, is “to make films that encourage viewers to make their own connections, to think strange thoughts, to be unsure of what happens next or even ‘what kind of a movie this is.’ ”
As noted, there is a narrative framework of sorts, beginning with the introduction of Johann (Bobby Sommer), a silver-haired museum guard with a soothing voice who tells us a bit about his past as both a woodworking teacher and a manager of up-and-coming rock bands.
“I had my share of loud,” he says. “Now it’s my share of quiet.” Sitting behind the velvet rope in museum locales such as the world-famous Bruegel Room, he is truly content to observe.
“What is it about some people that makes us curious?” he asks at one point as a way of introducing us to Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara). She’s a Canadian who knows nothing of Vienna but has shown up out of some obscure sense of obligation to a long-lost cousin she hasn’t seen in years but who is now in a coma.
There is nothing romantic about the interest these two take in each other; they simply seem to enjoy each other’s company as they make their way through a scenario that has all the earmarks of being quasi-improvised. Although Johann has a way of talking that pulls us in, the same is not the case with Anne, a character whose musings run from the tedious to the banal.
It matters not, however, for we are at “Museum Hours” more to look than to listen. First, we look at selections of the art exhibited at the Kunsthistorisches, exquisitely photographed by Cohen, who works as his own cinematographer, and Peter Roehsler. Whether it be paintings by Bruegel, artifacts from Egypt or any other piece, shot whole or only shown via a detail, these objects come close to transfixing us.
The same holds true for the exterior street scenes, shot by Cohen with a wind-up 16mm Bolex but no less involving for that. Seemingly randomly composed, these images exhibit a fine sense of haphazard beauty, capturing our attention, though we couldn’t exactly say why. Kind of like “Museum Hours” itself.