Art and film intertwine in 'Museum Hours'

The Fresno BeeSeptember 11, 2013 

Bobby Sommer in "Museum Hours," which reviewer Donald Munro calls defiantly still and gently seductive.


People approach museums differently. Some breeze into galleries and quickly scan the works. Occasionally, they find a painting or object that captures their interest and give it their full, undivided attention — but just for a minute or two.

Others take things a lot more slowly. They spend an entire afternoon, say, in one gallery, truly looking at the works, absorbing their impact. It's almost as if they become wrapped up in an image, become one with it, in a ritual of deliberative contemplation.

That second approach has a lot in common with "Museum Hours," the defiantly still and gently seductive film from Jem Cohen, a New York filmmaker. Elegant and solemn, the film's insistence on making the viewer slow down to fit into its low-key rhythm will irk some.

Others, however, particularly those who welcome films that go against the grain of speedaholic modern visual culture, could find themselves wrapped up in the film — just as if they'd been hypnotized by a great piece of art.

A Fresno Filmworks presentation, the film plays for two screenings Friday only at the Tower Theatre.

The real star of "Museum Hours" is Vienna's gorgeous Kunsthistorisches Museum, particularly the galleries boasting the museum's deep-pocket collections of Dutch masters. These are the favored haunts of an older museum guard, Johann (Bobby Sommer), who enjoys the quietness of his job. He loves examining the art in detail, but most of all, he takes advantage of his position — museum guards are "invisible," he tells us in voiceover narration — to watch the patrons who wander through his rooms.

A chance encounter with one of those visitors results in a lasting connection. Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara) is a Montreal woman who traveled to Vienna because her cousin, with whom she lost touch over the years, is in a coma. Johann helps her with directions to the hospital. Soon, he's helping translate her phone calls with the doctors and acting as tour guide — in the process seeing his beloved city through fresh eyes.

In many ways, "Museum Hours" is a gentle love story. We watch a distinct bond form between Johann and Anne, though it doesn't appear to be sexual. (Johann explains early on that he's gay.) That distinction makes the relationship even more interesting. The film gives their tender relationship room to breathe.

But the director defiantly keeps the film from following a traditional narrative. Along with long, lingering shots of paintings, the stillness of the camera sometimes turns the actors themselves into still-lifes.

While the people in the film are important, Cohen keeps taking us back to the museum. At one point, we're dropped into an interlude in which a lecturer talks about the works of Pieter Bruegel, known for painting scenes of peasants.

For long stretches, the film revels in dark, moody works by Rembrandt — you could almost fall into that blue-blackness.

The result is an experience not unlike going to a museum itself: a chance to peruse wondrous things in a sacred space. For an evening, a movie theater becomes a place where art and life become beautifully entangled.

Movie review

"Museum Hours," not rated. Stars Bobby Sommer, Mary Margaret O'Hara. Written and directed by Jem Cohen. In English and German with English subtitles. A Fresno Filmworks presentation at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. Friday, Tower Theatre, 815 E. Olive Ave. Tickets: $10 and $8. Grade: A-

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at

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