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‘Museum Hours’: Companionship among the canvases


Johann Bobby Sommer

Anne Mary Margaret O’Hara

Cinema Guild presents a film written and directed by Jem Cohen. In English and German, with English subtitles. Running time: 106 minutes. No MPAA rating (contains brief, non-erotic adult nudity). Opens Friday at the Music Box.

In wintry Vienna, a visitor from Montreal and a museum guard meet in “Museum Hours.” Observant with mannered edits, Jem Cohen’s modest story delivers a character sketch and a traveler’s essay.

Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) borrows airfare to Vienna. A distant cousin lays in a coma in a hospital there. Johann (Bobby Sommer) works at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum. He tells her he works Tuesday though Friday, starting at 1 p.m., and offers to translate for her at the hospital.

The new companions talk about art. Nudes on canvas prompt a reverie: A handful of museum visitors appear in the nude. At her cousin’s bedside, Anne asks Johann to describe his favorite paintings. In a later voiceover he takes on the role of a gallery guide by interpreting street scenes as if they were living paintings.

A bit of a loner who admits to playing more online poker than he should, Johann shows Anna his city in the off-season. Cohen, however, does not mystify Vienna as he did New York City in his black-and-white Super-8 film titled “This Is a History of New York.” Here he shoots more like a miniaturist than a landscapist. Among some indifferent shots, though, there are many small wonders.

A lecturer suggests visitors look at a little boy near the center of a painting crowded with many figures. Maybe Pieter Bruegel the Elder misdirects attention with the title of this 1564 painting: “The Procession to Calvary.” The title Cohen chooses for his film is less of a deflection. The quiet time that Johann and Anne spend during museum hours — and after his shifts on trips around the city — offer solace in their mutual solitude. “Museum Hours” is an introverted companion for its viewers.

Bill Stamets is a Chicago free-lance writer and reviewer.

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