A tribute to the beauty in life and the art of seeing: A film review of Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours

An exquisitely curated film, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours is a bewitching homage to looking.

When the middle-aged museum guard Johann (Bobby Sommer) notices the slightly disheveled yet charmingly perceptive Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), he experiences a small sense of intrigue. The curiosity may be miniscule, but when Anne looks at a city map in bewilderment, Johann sees an opportunity to approach the woman who looked upon masterpieces with a sense of open intrigue and unassuming integrity.  

Their meeting does not unfold into a conventional plotline, but instead steadily unravels some of the greatest mysteries and delights present in everyday existence, one that is shared not only between Anne and Johann, but also with the distant viewer.

Methodically cropping and holding scenes to reflect the way the eye scans its current reality—jumping from corner-to-corner and holding long gazes—Cohen masterfully draws the viewer into the impressive rooms of the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, inspiring her to absorb the presented images with widened eyes; injects him into the bone chilling winter streets of Vienna, encouraging him to seek beauty in the ordinary; and abandons the moviegoer in a hospital room, where all sounds and movements, even the most still and silent, are amplified.

The film’s magic captivates the viewer by elegantly juxtaposing scenes of profane life, such as a junk market in the street, with the sacred experience of visiting a museum—shown most poignantly with intimate shots from the shoulder up, emphasizing the movement of the eye, and creating an enigma in the viewer who grows a desire to see what the individual on screen is viewing.

Just as one looks at a familiar painting, seeking something new, by the end of the film, one cannot help but to find magnificence in each carefully selected scene. The slight ripple of a strand of grass in a light breeze; the momentary tonal change on a paint surface when a museumgoer passes by; the way veins move below the surface of the skin when fingers taps one another; each of these movements, normally ignored by most viewers, suddenly intensify. One cannot help but to be reminded of the giddy excitement felt at seeing a mouse cross Bruce Nauman’s dark studio in the dead of night, in his video art piece Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage).

Though each scene makes an impression on its own, the visual images are supported by the duo’s conversations and Johann’s voice-over insights, unafraid and uninhibited by ambient sounds. One hears the familiar click of heals and the low murmur of private conversations in a museum gallery, as peasants playing music in a Bruegel the Elder genre painting flash on screen, the unabashedly honest nudes in Lucas Cranach’s depiction of Adam and Eve linger for a moment too short, and the eye of a Rembrandt self-portrait haunts the moviegoer when magnified to theater proportions. Likewise, surveying scenes in a café are uninterrupted by clinking glasses and a crying a baby.

Each indeterminate sound and every modest movement reminds the viewer that she is alive. This urgent statement is underscored by the sole reason Anne is in Vienna: to visit her comatose cousin.

A brilliant and awakening film, Museum Hours reminds us to look. Actually look. Observe. See. Listen. Be alive and experience this beautiful world we all share.  

Bringing the Arts in DC to You,
Roxanne Goldberg

Museum Hours is showing for one week, until August 30, at Landmark Bethesda Row Cinemas, 7235 Woodmont Avenue, Bethesda, MD.