Movie review: ‘Museum Hours’ shows old masters are still relevant

ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESSOctober 11, 2013 

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The Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna is the setting for “Museum Hours.”

  • MUSEUM HOURS

    •••1/2

    Rated: Not rated. Starring: Mary Margaret O'Hara, Bobby Sommer, Ela Piplits. Director: Jem Cohen. Running time: 107 minutes. Theater: Flicks.

“Look around you” is the insistent message of “Museum Hours.”

Playing out not unlike a middle-aged entry in the “Before Sunrise” series of movies, which feature two people chatting about life and love for 90 minutes or so, “Museum Hours” focuses on singer Mary Margaret O’Hara as a Canadian who visits Vienna to check in on a comatose cousin.

While there, she befriends an art museum guard (Bobby Sommer), whose commentary carries along the film’s theme that paintings by the old masters still have plenty to teach us.

“They are, in a sense, documentaries,” says another museum employee as she introduces patrons to the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

This woman is a minor character in the film, but she’s astonishingly vivid as she discusses how Bruegel’s jam-packed paintings tell multiple stories, how they respect the importance of even the minor figures in them (much like this woman is a minor figure) and how their striking details keep them modern.

Director Jem Cohen brings that point home with a clever and seamless transition from Sommer talking about tiny details in a Bruegel — an eggshell, tossed-aside playing cards— to a shot of litter on a Vienna street.

For a second, there seems to be nothing to separate us from Bruegel’s day, nearly 500 years ago. For a second, it is as if we are in the Bruegel.

Not much happens in “Museum Hours.” Scratch that. Nothing happens. But O’Hara (who strongly resembles her sister, Catherine O’Hara) and Sommer are great company, and there’s something magical and effortless about the ways Cohen asks us to examine the link between art and life: Characters sit without moving, as if in a still life; visitors to a museum assume poses similar to the statuary on display; a guide describes an unseen painting to museum visitors so vividly, it’s as if they — and we — are painting it in our minds.

It’s a film of such delicacy and mystery that, almost like the work of a master painter, it draws you into its quiet world, where there is beauty everywhere you look.

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