By Mark James. 

Here’s a problem: people are things as well as they are people. Not as much as people are people, clearly, but people’s sensual bodies as well as their social being exist in precisely the same plane of things-in-the-world, as junk at a flea market or artifacts in a museum. This is not to denigrate people, but to recognize the difficulty we have at untangling people’s quasi-thingness from a thing’s quasi-personhood. Films, for example, speak to us as much if not more than other people in our lives, and they’re literally collections of images (stained onto celluloid or held as electrons kept in order by a computer program). And other people can be just as mute and unresponsive as a plastic toy—just think of the thousands of people you pass by on the streets of your city every day. A real connection to another person can sometimes feel as rare as experiencing a genuine connection to a thing.

In Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, a tender if tentative exploration of human connection and how things mediate it, a guard in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Art Museum makes a connection with a Canadian woman visiting Austria. The visiting woman, Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), is a gentle, dutiful person without too many things to tie her down, so when an estranged cousin in Vienna slips into a coma with no other kin, she borrows money for a flight and an extended stay. Her request for directions from museum guard Johann (Bobby Sommer) leads to him extending his guard duties to guide duties to help Anne spend her time. He’s a gentle, dutiful person, too.

Johann narrates the film in a deliberate, almost deadpan voice. He was a punk in his youth and went on tour before becoming a shop teacher and then a museum guard. The periods of quiet and relative invisibility of the job appeal to him, though we never wonder what secret trauma might Johann’s stillness conceal. The naturalistic performances and clear, documentary-style editing contribute to the sense that we’re watching real people simply living their lives.

The camera spends a lot of time observing the museum: the people passing through it as well as the paintings and other art objects in it. Whenever the camera comes face to face, as it were, with a painting, we get a sense of recognition even though on further thought it’s misplaced. The animals or people depicted in the painting really do seem to exist and to look through their medium, then through the camera at us. Can they see each other like we see them? No, of course not. What’s happening is that one of our tools to help us see is in blind proximity to another tool for sight, namely the camera, and there’s no recognition at all except in our own relation to the two things. But of course, the two things’ existence is fully dependent on the people who arrange the tools, orient them towards one another, or simply appear in the tools’ records. The two are tangled up again—we are back to square one.

Museum Hours tracks this knotted path with surprising pathos and a sensitive touch. The two adult strangers slowly open up to each other, even though it is somewhat of a gratuitous risk. But Anne would not have anybody in Vienna if not for Johann—her cousin is in a vegetative state, a woman reduced to her thinghood. And Johann, after drawing Anne toward the art by namechecking Archimbaldo, the painter of people as collections of vegetables, reveals that he does not have many relationships in Vienna either.

The question of how to bridge the divide between two people is a practical as well as artistic concern. Museum Hours is too decent and too modest to make a definitive claim that art can do it, but it’s the kind of film that shows, not tells. The questions it raises — how do you know if something silent is actually listening? How can strangers know each other? Does distance really keep us apart? — seem obvious at first, worthy of dismissal. But upon closer consideration they are revealed to be fresh existential questions, and Museum Hours should be commended for posing them in such a complex and uncontrived way.

Johann muses on a young co-worker he once had who saw the paintings as nothing but money, or stand-ins for money. Would it be possible for a painting to really be priceless, he wonders? That is, can a painting be so unique that it’s simply not reducible to money? The fact that he struggles with the question suggests that, at least during museum hours, all things can be made commensurate for all people. But are all people open to comparison like that, or are some people islands?

The inevitable end to Anne’s trip occurs while on a chaste subterranean tour of a pristine underground lake by Vienna (Freud’s home city —he would have a field day with that scene). Johann gets a call from Anne’s cousin’s doctor, and the implications of having involved himself with this stranger make themselves clear: he has to become a vessel for the word of death. That Anne cannot even bear to turn herself around to accept it is a reassertion of the fundamental divide between these two. They still do not know each other, and they have no real reason to go on interacting besides expedient resolution of loneliness (which for Johann is a less temporary problem, so it’s less acute). But they have connected, and in fact they are a lot alike. The momentary trauma of death does not do anything to destroy this tenuous bond.

Johann’s favorite room in the museum, he tells us, is the Breugel room, probably the finest collection of Breugel paintings in the world. A tour guide explains that his paintings were rare documents of a particular era. They record more than just facts, but they are not sentimental nor do they judge their subjects. They show an important juncture in history, the transition between the Renaissance and Modernity, and do so by empathetically discovering human subjects in the midst of crowds and things. It may be the case that Museum Hours traces a similarly important juncture, that between the materialist modernity of things, and the coming modernity of people.

Mark James lives in San Francisco and has written about film for numerous publications, including The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide and The Advocate.

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