Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours is sometimes compared to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. Comparison-makers point to Cohen’s unobtrusive eye, allowing his characters to simply exist, to speak as if uninhibited by a script, much like the naturalistic relationship between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Linklater’s films. Museum Hours strikes me, however, as quite distinct. An ode to the simple poetics of daily life, it goes to lengths to find this poeticism in a place perhaps lacking in it and is thus perfectly composed with this aim.
Vienna is where the film takes place. Vienna, a capital city like any other, can be chaotic, brash, and ugly. Famously, visitors to Paris are often traumatised to find that it does not resemble the postcard landscape we see in old movies, but is instead a metropolitan centre like any other with its fair share of pickpockets, litter, and traffic jams. Poetry can be tough to find in places like these. Even though Cohen demonstrates that poetry does not exclusively exist in verdant meadows and traditionalist architecture, but can be found in the very traffic jams and litter that scatter about cities, it still takes a meditator to find it. In our current world – if I’m allowed to indulge in tired curmudgeonly conservatism – forces conspire against this meditative life. Droning music, constantly available and difficult to resist, nulls our senses to the outside world, and other digital distractions make existing within the moment seem less exciting than it should be. Museum Hours is a meditative experience, a balm for this way of living, which praises the beauty of being still and accepting boredom. Cohen takes Vienna – its inhabitants, visitors, and cafés – and builds a highly crafted story of fate. Anne and Johann do not come together by chance: you get the sense that they had to meet at some point, by some cosmic purpose. It takes a family illness to bring them together. The situation itself is bizarre, as Anne feels obliged to travel to a place she’s never been to see a comatose cousin she hasn’t spoken to in years. And so death and loneliness converge on wintry Vienna, and the similarly lonely Johann appears as solace. He rediscovers his city as he shows it to Anne, finding new things upon which to meditate. It is overall an incredibly gentle film that does not speak for itself.
The film does do worse when it makes itself known. One scene shows an obnoxious American tourist peaking a look at his phone during an art tour. He and his partner then question the self-assured tour guide by claiming the supremacy of religious imagery in Bruegel over the guide’s more secular analysis. In the end, whether Cohen’s intention or not, neither guide nor tourist comes off well. The guide is just as forceful in her interpretation of the Bruegel as the pious tourist is, who at least is earnest and unpretentious. Even here though, the central tenet of the film is treated with relative care. Bruegel’s vast paintings without a clear focal point, busy with depictions of life and death in one frame, present an easy parallel to the film itself. Multi-faceted, interpretable, but perfectly composed. Cohen’s beautiful meditation on the atomised life, makes us look in as if onto a painting, full of little details we can revisit time and time again, like Johann in his room of art.