Runs Fri., Aug. 30–Thurs., Sept. 5 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 106 minutes.
All those nudes hanging on the walls of museums. All those clothed people standing around staring. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the spectators were naked as they looked upon the ample flesh hanging coyly on the walls?
Maybe you’ve had that daydream while wandering through a room of unabashed Titians. So, apparently, has writer/director Jem Cohen, whose Museum Hours contains such a scene, amusingly staged. The remainder of the film is quite chaste, as Cohen takes a wisp of plot and arranges it around two lonely strangers who meet at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, a stately repository of art. Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a museum guard, now calm and gray but once a rock musician. Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) is visiting from Canada, called to Austria because a cousin has gone into a coma and Anne is her only surviving relative.
Visiting someone in a coma leaves plenty of time for hanging around a museum, and solitary Johann is available to guide Anne through drizzly Vienna. Johann’s single stray mention of a past male partner is enough to cancel any expectation of romance here, and indeed such a conventional plot turn would be too much for this quiet little study, which plays like Lost in Translation half asleep. To convey a sense of just how undramatic the action is, the movie snaps into life when a docent delivers a 10-minute talk in the Brueghel room. (Her viewing lesson applies to the movie: Look at the overall design, not the hero’s journey.)
It sounds as though Cohen—a veteran documentarian directing his first feature—is approximating a conversational Richard Linklater vibe, but Museum Hours isn’t going there, either. I liked the setup and I wanted to slip into the contemplative zone the film creates, but too often the movie’s rejection of drama is rendered as plain old flatness. It might have helped if the two performers, who appear to be improvising some of their dialogue, were allowed to shine more. At first it looks and sounds as though the great SCTV comedian Catherine O’Hara is playing Anne as a parody of a slightly dotty denizen of the Great White North, but no—it’s Catherine’s sister, a much-loved Canadian cult singer. She and Sommer come across as very nice people, which is another way of saying that a fascinating idea—what happens when a person ponders art and time—climbs only partway out of this movie.