Thomas Bernhard's novel Old Masters takes place mostly within the confines of Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, on one particular bench in its Bordone Room. This is a place of focused contemplation for the aging critic Reger, who spends his days staring at Tintoretto's White Bearded Man lost in thought, the painting calling up old memories, conflicts, and obsessions. For Bernhard, this descent into artistic reverie represents a state of total disengagement, with the museum functioning as a closed-off world defined by an indulgent fascination with a lifeless past. He writes that "no matter how many great spirits and how many Old Masters we take as companions, they can't replace any people."
Set in a few different corners of that same museum, Jem Cohen's masterful Museum Hours espouses an alternate but related viewpoint. Artistic examination still can't replace human connection, but even as a substitution it has its uses, connecting the viewer to vanished worlds which they can only begin to understand, a state that parallels our inherently incomplete engagement with our own world. This is a film that pushes beyond absolutes of past and present, understanding human lives as a composite of both states, full of buildings, objects, and people which, even when they seem familiar, contain so much more than we could ever understand.
Exploring these heady ideas, the film locates its emotional and narrative center in Johann (Bobby Sommer), a museum attendant who begins a chance friendship with a Canadian visitor, Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), in town to tend to her ailing cousin. As we find him, Johann has settled down into a late-middle-aged existence of monkish quietude, playing online poker and sitting alone at cafés, his closet friend a brother living in Dusseldorf, a city he can't bear to visit. Anne is a part-time singer who depends on friends for steady employment, and who's experienced some sort of unspecified estrangement from her cousin, who now lies in a coma.
The combination of these two characters seems to promise a narrative predicated on resurgence, with the newcomer offering the old-timer an excuse to emerge from his isolated flâneur lifestyle, with the rebound effect of Johann's inherent goodness inspiring Anne to accept her cousin's illness and her own fractured existence. These basic plot points do occur in some sense, but in no such black-and-white terms, and by the time they do, the film has pushed far beyond its initial narrative structure, growing into something much more universal and unique.
In this context, Johann's rediscovering of parts of his city he'd forgotten doesn't just represent internal revival, it serves as a reminder of the ever-shifting vastness of these places, all the different meanings they contain. As the two tour the city, Johann imparts bits of history and lore, the camera gently gliding away from an exclusive contemplation of its two subjects, wandering off to examine the walls of an old church, background figures in a painting, or shaggy flea-market tchotchkes, affording each minute detail a brief moment of close-up portraiture. Gradually, the real story here comes into focus, with our two protagonists positioned within a massive tapestry of humanity, which continues to expand as the film progresses.
Subverting the usual progress of narrative development via a macro study of individuals' relationship to the times and places they inhabit, Museum Hours mostly bypasses rising action or conflict, finding its most salient tension in the fraught relationship between known and unknown objects. We know Anne and Johann, to some small extent, but their relationship never edges beyond polite distance and warm conversation, carried out over pints of beer. Two people who come from, and in most ways remain in, very different worlds, they embrace these gulfs rather than bemoan them, sharing stories and anecdotes and little more. Imagine an ascetic, much wiser version of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, without any of the jagged concessions toward standard Hollywood plotting.
In some sense, the difference between Museum Hours and most films is the difference between a standing tree and an uprooted one; this is a story with the roots exposed, so that our focus expands beyond living objects to the sources of that life, to its imminent fragility and beyond. If Cohen's work has a focal point it's the comatose cousin, who's condition is stable yet shifts slowly toward the state of unbeing that characterizes so much of this ancient city and the contents of its old museum.
There's pain and sadness in the fact that all things will fade, but Cohen invites us to appreciate the bittersweet ripples left behind, from a self portrait of an aged Rembrandt in rags to an old toy abandoned in a junk shop. One long section delves into a few of Brueghel's pastoral paintings, which, despite their ostensible focus on religious figures, place those figures within grand, documentary panoramas of everyday life, the size and spectacle of which dwarf all the individuals within them. Museum Hours has that same sort of impact, and while the story at its core is lovely, it's the delicate treatment of that story, and the deftness exhibited in incorporating a purposefully small narrative within an achingly expansive context, that makes the film a masterpiece.