A beautifully observant, heartwarming and compassionate film, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours (2012) was one of last year’s quiet revelations. After a youth spent travelling with rock bands across Europe, Johann (played by the reserved yet soothingly charismatic Bobby Sommer) has now decided to have his own share of ‘quiet time’, working as a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The museum’s Bruegel room is his favourite, where he always finds something new and fascinating in Bruegel’s earthy, unsentimental but vivid depictions of the rituals of rural folk culture in the 16th century.
One day, Johann notices a middle-aged woman who seems more than a little lost. Her name is Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), who’s arrived in Vienna to care for her comatose cousin but is having difficulty finding her way around the city. Johann befriends her, acting as a tour guide and escorting her around the sights of Vienna, inadvertently seeing the place he’s lived in for years in a new light. Much like the works of Bruegel he’s spent so long observing and admiring, he begins to fall back in love with the city he’s so often taken for granted. Letting the artwork in the Kunsthistorisches and the sublime architecture of Vienna inspire and enrich the audience, Museum Hours excels through a languid, almost meditative approach to storytelling.
Anne’s presence acts as a catalyst for Johann to turn his thoughtful observations towards the world around him – a cineliterate love letter to Vienna and to living life without the oppressive filter of the mundane rituals of modern day life. Indeed, how art and life interconnect is central to the success of Cohen’s film, building to a fittingly uplifting finale which perfectly captures the mood and ambiance of this positively delightfully offering.
A work of considerable cultural and social sophistication, Museum Hours slowly strips away the formal structure of its museum setting to reveal a tale of two lost souls which, refreshingly, doesn’t transpire into a contrived romantic drama. Instead, Cohen’s latest morphs into something far sweeter and relatable – a quiet drama about shared emotions, opening up to someone else and about taking stock of your life; appreciating what you have, what you have had, and what remains to be enjoyed.
This review was originally published on 15 October 2012 as part of our London Film Festival coverage.
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