Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) is a middle-aged Montrealer. We don’t know much about her, beyond the fact that she’s a bit hard up for cash. We know this because we hear her end of the telephone conversation asking a friend for financial help when she suddenly has to go to Vienna. We also know that she has a cousin in Vienna who’s in a coma. That’s why she needs to go there suddenly.
Johann (Bobby Sommer) used to manage rock groups, then taught woodworking. He looks a bit like Václav Havel. His manner seems winningly Havel-like. Intelligent and unhurried, he enjoys studying his surroundings. That may be why he likes his job, as a gallery guard at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. “I had my share of loud,” he says. “So now I have my share of quiet.”
What these two very different people have in common is the Kunsthistorisches. Anne stops by there one day between hospital visits. Johann, noticing she looks lost, gives her directions and offers to call the cousin’s doctor (Anne doesn’t speak German). A friendship ensues. Johann is gay, so romance doesn’t become an issue.
One of the world’s great art museums, the Kunsthistorisches (which means “art history”) is the true star of the movie. Writer-director Jem Cohen has a way of lingering over the paintings — especially the paintings in the Bruegel Room — that can be transfixing. What’s that old saying, “like watching paint dry”? These sequences in “Museum Hours” are like watching paint come alive.
That’s part of Cohen’s point. He’s interested in showing the connection between what’s behind the velvet ropes in front of the paintings and what’s beyond them, where people are. The riotous, untidy scenes captured by Pieter Bruegel the Elder are not unlike the riotous, untidy scenes that Anne and Johann pass by as they wander through Vienna.
The film itself, like its two main characters, is quiet and unemphatic. In its watery rhythms and uninflected, matte mood, “Museum Hours” recalls “Wings of Desire” a little bit. But in the background, Cohen’s camera keeps capturing construction sites and flea markets and commercial signage. There’s a startling shot, for example, of a big Coca-Cola sign obscuring the view of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral.
“Museum Hours” is an unusual film. It lacks a score yet feels like a sonata, intimate and musical. Secret harmonies are being heard. The film can seem at times more documentary or even art appreciation class than drama. In one of the longer sequences, a museum docent delivers a talk on Bruegel to a group of tourists. It’s a tribute equally to Cohen, Bruegel, and the actress playing the docent, Ela Piplits, that the scene doesn’t stop the movie in its tracks.
Cohen doesn’t really know how to end “Museum Hours.” Letting it go on a bit too long, he provides a conclusion that’s abrupt and slightly hackneyed (if also, perhaps, inevitable). Ultimately, the movie is a dialogue not between two people, but two institutions: the museum and the hospital. Art endures, and life doesn’t. That’s one way in which the paintings in the Bruegel Room differ from the people looking at them. After closing time, the paintings get to stay. We’re the ones museum hours apply to.