I got into an argument with a friend the other night about arthouse and mainstream movies; he would veer towards the White House Down side of things and I defended the films that were a little more off the beaten track. He complained that arthouse were all about the director showing off. He hasn't seen it yet (and probably won't) but Museum Hours is what he's talking about.
Documentary maker Jem Cohen directs Museum Hours, a hesitant drama about a former school teacher turned museum guard Bobby Sommer who befriends Canadian Mary Margaret O'Hara when she arrives in Vienna to care for her gravely ll cousin. With little money to spend, Sommer sees to it that the museum is free to her and, when he becomes her guide outside the Kunsthistorische, a tender friendship develops.
That sounds like there is a plot, some sort of forward momentum, that something happens during the course of the film, but there isn't, there's not, it doesn't. At one point, Jem Cohen's camera stops moving about the museum and falls in with a tour guide, who is leading a group of Americans around Bruegel's paintings. The scene itself is about ten minutes long and while the lecture itself is interesting, it not only distracts itself from the friendship plot, it also hammers home the essence of Museum Hours all too hard.
Jem Cohen's film wants us to take a second look at life, to see the magical in the banal. The camera is stationary throughout, which allows the viewer to explore what is going on in the background, maybe really look at how that building is shrouded in shadow or how the old lady's fingers struggle with her coat buttons. The fact that the eye can wander in these scenes, however, means there is damn all happening in them.
Sommer and O'Hara make a nice pair and their ad-libbed dialogue is warm and real as they walk through the city and its sights, but Cohen never allows one to think it can go anywhere a la Before Sunrise. He doesn't seem interested and whenever there's a hint that the relationship just might develop, Cohen presses the reset button and we're back looking at paintings.