Museum Hours


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Bobby Sommer in Museum Hours.
"This goes on for more than two hours and will bore some viewers to death. Others, though, will find this quiet, complex film a fascinating piece of art in itself."

Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara) is visiting Vienna for the first time. It's not a romantic getaway or an eagerly anticipated city break. She's there to visit her cousin Janet, who is lying in a coma; although she hasn't seen her since childhood, there's nobody else to do the job. In her spare time, she looks for low cost things to do in the city and finds her way to the Kunsthistorichesmuseum.

Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a security guard at the museum. He's drifted into the job towards the end of a varied career but he loves getting to spend so much time with paintings and objects that fascinate him deeply. When he meets Anne he finds her similarly fascinating, a palimpsest unaware of her own complexity. Gradually, the two of them become friends.

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Plot-wise, that's about it. They talk, they wander around the museum together looking at its treasures, and they visit other locations of interest in the city. This goes on for more than two hours and will bore some viewers to death. Others, though, will find this quiet, complex film a fascinating piece of art in itself.

Ostensibly, Anne and Johann's conversations are nothing remarkable. Sometimes they discuss intellectual ideas, sometimes they talk about details of their lives, and sometimes Johann discourses on the history of the city. Yet these conversations are full of little details that subtly change the balance of their relationship. As Janet lies in hospital, mysterious, speculated upon, Anne and Johann become aware that they too are receding into history; that some day all they will be is stories, memories, like the items in the museum, if indeed there is anyone to remember. In light of that, there is a renewed urgency about forming human connections, even if this is never expressed directly.

Around this, the film unfolds itself as a fictional narrative about the perceived and assumed secrets in older pieces of art. Fiction and fact interweave on multiple levels. Johann tells a story only to reveal later that it was a wind-up. Prehistoric artefacts are pored over. Anne thinks the stone fish are cute. But were they ever intended as art, or as socially significant? Might they have been no more important than the soft drinks can Johann spots in the street?

As the film progresses, the visual narrative begins to break down. Intercut with the paintings on the museum walls, we see images of chain link fences, newsagents, elderly people browsing at a market stall. Where does observation become art? When do these scenes come to have social and historical relevance? Buried in this tale of two strangers meeting are eviscerating narratives about class and gender relationships. Time shapes itself around Anne and Johann; they are not mere observers, but part of a process that will ultimately see the city itself remembered only through art.

Reviewed on: 30 Nov 2013
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Museum Hours packshot
A museum attendant shows a Canadian visitor the sights of Vienna and in the process falls in love with it all over again.
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Director: Jem Cohen

Writer: Jem Cohen

Starring: Mary Margaret O’Hara, Bobby Sommer, Ela Piplits

Year: 2012

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: Austria, US

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