Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours uses a series of conversations between a man and a woman of different nationalities to explore larger issues of culture and art; in many ways, it’s like a gentler, more meditative take on Richard Linklater’s Before series or Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. The man and woman are Bobby Sommer and Mary Margaret O’Hara; he’s an Austrian museum guard, she’s a Canadian who has come to Vienna to visit a dying relative. O’Hara asks Sommer for directions, and he becomes her guide, first to an unfamiliar city, then to its history and culture. (Sommer also guides the film via extensive—and often wryly funny—voiceover).
In a figurative sense, Cohen is a landscape filmmaker. His vast body of work—which includes music videos, documentaries, and experimental films—is full of movies that stake out a geographic position and then survey the cultural and economic environment around it. His short works are collections of observations; his classic videos for R.E.M. (“Nightswimming,” “E-Bow The Letter”), for instance, are snapshots of life along the highway exits of the suburban South. Cohen’s longer films—like the Fugazi documentary Instrument (2003) or the narrative hybrid Chain (2004)—frame those observations in a larger cultural context.
Essentially an essay film, Museum Hours is less interested in plot than in using its characters as a way to give ideas shape and voice; however, because their performances are natural and improvisatory, the movie never seems didactic. Though Sommer and O’Hara are both playing characters, very little of what happens onscreen could credibly be called “fiction”; rather, Cohen is using his protagonists as lenses through which he can view the “real” Vienna. (In this sense, the movie brings to mind the late Chris Marker, one of Cohen’s major influences.) This tricky approach goes hand-in-hand with the movie’s major theme: how art changes the perception of surroundings. While the result isn’t always perfect, it’s hard to deny the movie’s ruminative, understated charm.