It's tempting to throw around the phrase "work of art" when discussing Jem Cohen's 2012 feature film 'Museum Hours,' but considering it's still relatively new, that sort of praise is in stark contrast to the museum and the centuries-old paintings, which serve as the movie's primary focal point. And yet with its eschewing of a familiar narrative or plot, and its carefully measured, often poignant understanding of how moments of quiet reserve fill our time between significant events, the film is as close to being an actual work of art, as it will likely ever get.
An exploration of humanity through art, and the initially arbitrary interest in the lives of others that turn genuine in sometimes unexpected, and yet wholly organic and engrossing ways, 'Museum Hours' concerns Johann (Bobby Sommer), a contemplative security guard at Vienna's splendid Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, who befriends Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), a woman who suddenly finds herself in a country she's never been to before because her name was found in the address book of a cousin lying comatose there. When not at the hospital, Anne fills her days by wandering around the relative comfort and safety of the museum, until Johann takes notice of her, and with his competent grasp on the English language, offers to speak with the doctors on Anne's behalf. From there, a relationship blossoms, but not the kind that anyone would have expected. Platonic and chaste, but tender and giving, Johann and Anne form a bond that serves as the framework for Cohen's film that's as much about being still, being quiet, becoming small, unnoticeable and just watching the myriad details of the world, as it is about two people finding one another at the exact moment they needed to.
Although the burgeoning friendship between Johann and Anne is at the center of 'Museum Hours,' there isn't necessarily a structure built up around their encounters. Initially (and through voiceover), Johann manages to secure Anne a pass to the museum, as a way of allowing her some sanctuary in the foreign city she finds herself in, and for them to keep in contact, should anything happen with regard to her cousin. But as the days pass (though time feels inconsequential in this film), Johann and Anne soon find they're spending as much time exploring the streets of Vienna, as they are the quiet, meditative works adorning the walls of the Kunsthistoriches Art Museum. And though Johann must find attractions that are both stimulating and cheap (neither he nor Anne have much money), their exploration of the world and its inhabitants begin to showcase their surroundings in a manner that lifts them from the prosaic to poignant with surprising ease.
Cohen presents these outings in the kind of places you might imagine: dimly lit pubs, where the liveliness of the patrons elevates the sometimes-grey atmosphere, street corners dusted with falling snow, and then in a town square seemingly littered with discarded belongings, that is really just an approximation of a flea market, or garage sale. There are boxes filled with old magazines and newspapers, bits of clothing and worn trinkets; it all seems like junk, but through Cohen's thoughtful eye, these collections of old things ask the question: What is considered valuable and what is thought if as trash? And while the audience is asked to contemplate that, Johann finds himself remembering what Vienna used to mean to him, by showing it to someone new.
But the surprising star of 'Museum Hours' isn't Vienna, or even Johann or Anne; it's the works of 16th century painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder and their clever amassing of seemingly mundane detail that is easily looked over at a glance, but given some time and the right frame of mind, they reveal new riches on subsequent viewings. Early on in the film, Johann remarks at the longevity of Bruegel's works, by recalling the first time he noticed something as unexciting as eggs tucked away in one of the images, and soon found other paintings contained eggs as well – which instilled in him a desire to look at these familiar canvases in a whole new light.
Like Bruegel's paintings, Cohen's lens takes pleasure in the seemingly inconsequential details of everyday life, but by focusing on them, he makes them wholly unique in their own regard and, more importantly, demonstrates why the are worthy of his film's attention. This conceit is brought to life during a surprisingly talkative moment when a lecturer (Ela Piplets) is questioned by a man about her interpretation of one of Bruegel's works, of which she states the point of interest is not necessarily the small portion of the image from which it gets its title. The man's infuriating literal mindedness that a title instantly and permanently denotes the intentional focus and sole point of interest of a work of art purposefully expounds on the efficacy of Cohen's work within the context of his own film. The cleverness of this encounter, of course, is to point out how 'Museum Hours' is such a build-up of seemingly minute details that even its own point of interest can be easily questioned. Is it the friendly, pleasant, almost romance of Johann and Anne? Is it Vienna itself? Or is it the Kunsthistoriches Art Museum, the treasures it houses and the people who walk its halls to gaze endlessly at them?
Thankfully, it never does say, but ultimately, it feels as though 'Museum Hours' is content to be a celebration of the simplicity of life and the joy in finding the simplicity of the world around us.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Museum Hours' comes from Cinema Guild as a single 50GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keepcase. Along with the film, there is a booklet featuring essays from Luc Sante and writer-director Jem Cohen.
'Museum Hours' has been given a very nice 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer that does equally well with the interiors of the museum, as it does with the streets of Vienna and its surrounding areas. There doesn't seem to be any filters applied to the film, but Cohen still manages to capture the cold and dampness of the weather during the time in which the film was set. Thankfully, none of this affects the detail of the film, as it remains high throughout, offering rich and in-depth looks at wonderfully rendered facial features, clothing textures, and background elements. Detail is extended to wider shots as well, as Cohen's slow-moving lens captures the city with excruciating wide-eyed zeal that feels truthful and poetic at the same time.
Contrast levels remain high throughout, shadows remain robust with no evidence of crush or banding, as delineation is also quite strong. Although color only plays a significant role while examining the paintings of Bruegel and others, they are vivid and bright without looking oversaturated or feeling like they were pumped up for the benefit of the presentation. Overall, this is an excellent looking disc that shows off a remarkable film in the way it was intended to be seen.
Given a lovely DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, 'Museum Hours' really delivers the kind of well-rounded experiences that all films of this quality should have. Dialogue is strong and easy to hear (whether you're listening to the original voice-over, or the English version), while the ambient sounds of the city tend to take up the remainder of the aural spectrum on the disc. The center channel is primarily devoted to the aforementioned dialogue, allowing the remaining channels the opportunity to focus on everything else. Truth be told, this is not a complicated film in terms of the mix, it is generally comprised of quiet moments and some dialogue with ambient noise or atmospheric effects added to help complete the picture.
This is a mix that's deceptively simple: there's no score to speak of, and what sound effects are present were likely there when filming occurred, and yet that's really all 'Museum Hours' needs. This may be a narrower mix than most are used to hearing, but aside from a few examples of hollowness, it's a very nice one indeed.