A plaintive beauty, Jem Cohen's Vienna-set film "Museum Hours" tells a story of an unlikely friendship that arises, as so many friendships do, out of the ether of happenstance.
We're introduced to Johann, played by a splendidly serene non-actor, Robert Sommer, as he speaks to us in voice-over of his job as a guard at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, a grand storehouse of Bruegels, among other treasures. "Guarding has its tedium," he acknowledges. But earlier in life Johann worked as a rock 'n' roll tour manager and then as a woodworking instructor, surrounded by buzzsaws in full, blasting cry. So he appreciates the quiet, and he has, he says, his online poker as well as his comforting routines.
Then comes a gentle shake-up. Anne, played by Canadian singer Mary Margaret O'Hara, is a visiting Montreal woman, called to Vienna when her cousin slips into a coma. At the museum one day she asks Johann for directions and information about the transit system. This man has been surrounded, pleasantly so, much of his working life by museum docents, who guide tour groups through the intricacies and hidden meanings of Bruegel scenes of Dutch country life. Johann decides he will become a de facto docent himself for this stranger in need. His canvas is Vienna; Anne, his grateful partner in discovery.
Cohen's short films and previous features all allow images and music (and sound) to carry a surprising amount of the narrative load. There really isn't a narrative load in "Museum Hours." As Johann and Anne become better acquainted, they move around Vienna, spending time in the hospital room; cafes; bars; and the museum itself. Filmmaker Cohen (New York-based, but born in Kabul, Afghanistan) delves deeply into the artworks themselves, letting the portraits on the walls and the teeming panormas of unruly action linger on screen.
Cohen's eye is exquisite; in one shot, we see precisely the right portion of childrens' heads in the lower sliver of the frame while one of the docents explains the painting on view. The film is composed as a supple flow of scenes from ordinary modern Viennese life. Not much happens in terms of drama, but it's more than enough, because "Museum Hours" is about a place and two people and how our surroundings fill our senses with stimulation. One of the museum docents speaks of a Bruegel at one point of being "unsentimental" in its viewpoint without being "judgmental." Clearly Cohen was going for the same thing.
In planning "Museum Hours" Cohen, who has made music films (though not really music videos) with Patti Smith, Fugazi and others, wanted for Johann a "non-actor with a calm voice who understood odd jobs." Sommer is perfect. So is O'Hara. This is the "Before Sunrise" for a very different (and platonic) pair of individuals. Cohen has a wonderful eye for ephemera: flea markets, street trash, all the aspects of urban living that find echoes in the paintings on the walls guarded by Johann.
There's one shot near the end of "Museum Hours" in which Cohen probably shouldn't have indulged, that of a tree's suddenly dead leaves at a certain juncture in the skeletal plot. Some may find the film underpowered. Not me. With elegant understatement, Cohen creates a humane testament to reaching out, whatever our habits and routines.
"Museum Hours" - Four stars
No MPAA rating (some nudity).
Running time: 1:46; in English and German with English subtitles.
Opens: Friday at Music Box Theatre. "Museum Hours" also screens Dec. 6 at Northwestern University's Block Cinema.