4:54 PM EST, February 27, 2014
Last November, Jem Cohen's Vienna-set film "Museum Hours" made its modest premiere in Chicago. Some were restless with it. Others fell under its spell. Count me among those happy to see it return for an encore one-week theatrical run beginning Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The following is a distillation of the Nov. 15 Tribune review.
"Museum Hours" relays the story of an unlikely friendship that arises, as so many friendships do, out of the ether of happenstance. We're introduced to Johann, played by a splendidly serene nonactor, Robert Sommer, as he speaks to us in voice-over of his job as a guard at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, a grand storehouse of Bruegels, among other treasures. "Guarding has its tedium," he acknowledges. But earlier in life, Johann worked as a rock 'n' roll tour manager and then as a woodworking instructor, surrounded by buzz saws in full, blasting cry. So he appreciates the quiet, and he has, he says, his online poker as well as his comforting routines.
Then comes a gentle shake-up. Anne, played by Canadian singer Mary Margaret O'Hara, is a visiting Montreal woman. At the museum one day, she asks Johann for directions and information about the transit system.
Much of his working life this man has been surrounded, pleasantly so, by museum docents, who guide tour groups through the intricacies and hidden meanings of Bruegel scenes of Dutch country life. Johann decides he will become a de facto docent himself for this stranger in need. His canvas is Vienna; Anne, his grateful partner in discovery.
As Johann and Anne become better acquainted, they move around Vienna, spending time in the hospital room, cafes, bars and the museum itself. Filmmaker Cohen (New York-based but born in Kabul, Afghanistan) delves deeply into the artworks themselves, letting the portraits on the walls and the teeming panoramas of unruly action linger on screen.
Cohen's eye is exquisite; in one shot, we see precisely the right portion of children's heads in the lower sliver of the frame while one of the docents explains the painting on view. The film is composed as a supple flow of scenes from ordinary modern Viennese life. Not much happens in terms of drama, but it's more than enough because "Museum Hours" is about a place and two people and how our surroundings fill our senses with stimulation.
Sommer is perfect. So is O'Hara. This is the "Before Sunrise" for a very different (and platonic) pair of individuals. Cohen has a wonderful eye for ephemera: flea markets, street trash, all the aspects of urban living that find echoes in the paintings on the walls guarded by Johann. Cohen creates a humane testament to reaching out.
"Museum Hours" - 4 stars
No MPAA rating (some nudity)
Running time: 1:46
Opens: Friday through Thursday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.; siskelfilmcenter.org. In English and German with English subtitles.
Copyright © 2015 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC