Jem Cohen and Pieter Brueghel: documentarians of the every day


“Museum Hours” unfolds slowly, like a walk through a gallery or a lecture in art history class. Painting by painting, slide by slide. The closer you look, the more you see–little details that reveal links between the people and landscapes on both sides of the canvas, blurring the line between what’s “real” and what’s “art.”

That’s one of the lessons learned in this contemplative, grey-tinged film that tells the story of Ann, a blown-sideways-through-life Canadian (she describes herself as “friend-hired” versus “freelance”), who’s been called to Vienna by doctors caring for her dying cousin. Wandering around the city she does not know and whose language she does not speak, she finds herself at the Kunsthistorisches Museum where she meets Johann, a guard (with his own back story of loss and re-invention), who guides her journey through a city tourists never see. (You could spend hours teasing out all the cultural references of this plot.)

If there’s hero here, it is Pieter Brueghel, the 16th century Flemish artist whose complex genre paintings both anchor the story and provide sly commentary on the action, museum visitors and Vienna itself.

In a Q&A on opening night, writer/director Jem Cohen claimed that being dragged around to museums as a child was in part the inspiration for the film and that he had always felt especially drawn to Brueghel. The film’s silence and deliberate pacing was intentional, he added. He wanted to give viewers time to think and reflect. To become more aware of the “interstitial stuff,” the b-roll of every day life, not just what’s happening front and center.

“Museum Hours” is this summer’s un-blockbuster. No explosions, no over-the-top effects, no superheroes. Just small, subtle elements that make up the breadth of the human experience, exquisitely rendered and captured for the ages.

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