Bowing to one’s betters

Jem Cohen’s “Museum Hours.”
Little Magnet Films
Jem Cohen’s “Museum Hours.”

You probably figured out the premise of Zoom months ago. It calls attention to some specific something that stands out in a movie or on television and is worthy of further attention. A zoom, after all, is a shot where the lens moves. If that isn’t standing out, what is? The Zoom subject can be a shot or a scene or a bit of dialogue or, well, you get the idea. Something special happens.

The thing about Jem Cohen’s “Museum Hours,” which came out earlier this summer and plays at the Brattle Sunday as part of its Recent Raves series, is that nothing really special happens at all. Figuratively as well as literally, the movie is quite zoomless — which makes the whole thing something special.

A Canadian woman (Mary Margaret O’Hara) is visiting her hospitalized cousin in Vienna. She’s befriended by a man (Bobby Sommer) who works as a guard at the Kunsthistorisches art museum. The woman has a lot of time on her hands, and not much money, so they spend a lot of time at the museum or just walking around Vienna.


The closest the movie comes to a literal zoom are the many close-ups and slow panning shots over paintings in the museum by the 16th-century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Bruegel had a frantic, antic imagination worthy of Preston Sturges. In fact, Bruegel’s peasant eccentics and Carnival revelers would feel right at home in Sturges’s Ale & Quail Club. But it’s the suspended-animation aspect of the canvases that the close-ups and pans bring out: the way the paintings are at once deathless and immobilized. Cohen’s camera records the work of Bruegel’s brush with an appreciation verging on awe. It bows before that work, which one might say qualifies as a higher form of zoom.

Mark Feeney can be reached at