Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Museum Hours

Vienna, which Richard Linklater made look impossibly photogenic and romantic in “Before Sunrise,” gets a slushier treatment in Jem Cohen’s “Museum Hours,” a promising piece that takes unfortunate detours into directorial stylistics. 
It’s a very small story about a man and a woman of a certain age, each nice but a bit of a loner. Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) comes to Vienna from Montreal after a cousin of attenuated acquaintance falls into a coma. Poor (she had to borrow money for the trip), she spends her time away from the hospital walking the city, eventually making her way to its famed Kunsthistorisches Art Museum. There, she asks a guard named Johann (Bobby Sommer) for help navigating the mass transit system. Johann previously taught woodworking to schoolchildren, and before that managed a rock band (“I’ve had my share of loud, so now I have my share of quiet”). He takes a special (though platonic) interest in Anne, procuring a season pass for her and eventually accompanying her to the hospital and, over several weeks, all around town.

It’s a nice set-up for a pleasant slice of life, but Cohen insists on inserting himself in unhelpful ways. His juxtapositions of the museum’s treasure trove with everyday Vienna life – overlaying street scenes, say, with excerpts from an audiotour, or playing snippets of outside conversations over a slideshow of masterworks – are rarely effective. One scene in particular – in which museum guests are depicted, as if in someone’s imagination, observing the artworks while naked – really shatters the glass of this particular jewel box. Sommer does a good job of creating a complete character out of some voice-over narration and a little unobtrusive, you-go-first dialogue, while O’Hara has one too many scenes singing atonally at her cousin’s bedside (you’ll swear you hear dogs howling). The most compelling scene involves a member of the curatorial staff giving a guided tour and offering her expert take on the Kunsthistorisches' world’s-largest collection of paintings by Pieter Bruegel. Given that, I suggest you skip “Museum Hours” and head to your favorite museum instead. Make mine the Norton Simon.

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