Monday, September 30, 2013

Strangers in the afternoon

The woman is here because her cousin is in hospital, comatose, slowly dying, with no one to stay by her side, hold vigil. The cousins knew each other as kids, barely know each other as adults. But there’s no one else. The man is here because he’s always here, not at the hospital, but at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where he works as a guard, a tranquil sentinel holding vigil over centuries of art. The woman visits the museum and, later, the man will accompany her to the hospital—this is the story of a friendship. Were that it had some deeply sinister edge, Museum Hours would resemble some unsettling fiction by Marguerite Duras, or perhaps Julio Cortázar. But writer/director Jem Cohen takes a very different sort of risk, resisting the pull of drama so as to let the connection between these two not-young characters, between their disparate experiences of art and life, blossom in it’s own good time. Film is an audiovisual medium, but some films are more about seeing and hearing than others. This one is exquisitely attentive to both.

Hearing: for several scenes I kept hearing Anne’s voice and thinking, my god, she sounds like Catherine O’Hara. Later on Anne sings to her comatose cousin in the penumbra and it finally dawned on me: she sounds like Catherine O’Hara because she’s Mary Margaret O’Hara, the wonderful, legendary Toronto singer, sister to the beloved Toronto-born comedienne, whose face I’d never have recognized, having only seen her once before, when she made a surprise appearance at a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy show I attended some years back. Cohen often collaborates with musicians and O’Hara is a truly inspired choice for his co-protagonist, with her warm yet eccentric energy and that sense of something always hidden without seeming especially furtive or cultivating an air of mystery.

Johann, the guard, is portrayed by Bobby Sommer, who’s also spent his life surrounded by music, as a roadie in ’60s London and a concert promoter and tour manager in ’80s West Berlin. The exceedingly mild-mannered Johann shares stories of his rock ’n’ roll past with Anne that overlap in may regards with Sommer’s. The exchanges between Anne and Johann in the museum and hospital, in taverns or during a tour of the local grottoes, flow easily and naturally, a balm to ease the strangeness felt by the Canadian woman, visiting Vienna as a sort of designated mourner.

But Museum Hours, set in the mist-draped city where the study of art history originated, much of which unfolds at the Kunsthistorisches, much of which is given over to languorous gazes at Breughels and other paintingsnot to mention at the varied visitors to the Kunsthistorisches, whose gazes are a fascinating subject on their own—is most obviously concerned with seeing. Yet Cohen doesn’t instruct us on how to regard art. He gives us space and time to do so in our own way, to look and wonder free of the burden of excessive contextualization. Both museum and hospital trade in silence, offer refuge, demand only patience. Between these spaces the characters, and we, enjoy spells of escape. The cumulative effect is could be regarded as a more somber Lost in Translation, yet that somberness is entirely earned, feels totally genuine, and leads to a quiet transcendence quit unlike anything the movies usually offer.

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