A lovely and delicate rumination on life as art, Museum Hours is itself a thing of beauty. The movie encourages you to see the aesthetic potential of everything around you, including each frame that appears on the screen.
Set in and around Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, the slim narrative involves the relationship between a gallery guard named Johann (Bobby Sommer) and a visiting Canadian named Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara). She has come to be at the bedside of her cousin, who is in a coma, and wanders into the museum struggling with a city map. He helps her find her way, and this small act of kindness opens the door for a remarkable relationship built on mutual curiosity about each other and art.
The movie is less about Johann and Anne than it is about the creativity they encounter together, be it the Bruegel paintings that hang on the walls or the leftover World War II architecture that dominates a section of the city. There is meaning everywhere, and in seeking that out together they foster a rare sort of intimacy.
It seems as if movie and museum meld together.
Writer-director Jem Cohen creates a sumptuous environment within which this can happen. Magic is found in nearly every scene, whether it’s the coat hangers that tinkle like chimes when a jacket is pulled away or the moments when Anne, singing in her cousin’s hospital room, intermittently leans into the sunlight and her eyes gleam.
And then there is the art itself, which gets copious attention via frequent insert shots and at least one instance where the movie pauses to take in an entire lecture. At times, Cohen slips the insert shots into scenes taking place outside of Kunsthistorisches, so that it seems as if movie and museum meld together.
Cohen makes this explicit at the ending, with footage of an everyday woman walking along an average Viennese pathway. In voiceover, Johann describes what we’re seeing – the motion, the colors, the lines – as if it was a precious painting. A bit on the nose, perhaps, but the movie nonetheless leaves you with this exhilarating thought: life is a museum, and it’s always open.