It is exceedingly difficult to do pillow shots well. A technique perfected/invented by Ozu and then named by someone else later on, the pillow shot effectively frames the most basic emotional aspects of a given scene by inserting a very slow moving or still shot of something which on the surface bears no relevance to the action preceding or proceeding it. In the hands of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, a pillow shot will almost definitely come off as either twee or downright pretentious. It’s a technique fraught with danger and an excess of sentimental baggage. Which is why it’s so refreshing to see them done with the level of skill that Jem Cohen manages in Museum Hours.
Shot mostly in the consummately gorgeous Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, Cohen’s film does an incredible job of very subtly casting the art in the museum as a central character. Indeed, the pieces hanging on the walls and setting on the pedestals of the grand old institution end up playing just as important a role as the two principal actors, Bobby Sommer and Mary Margaret O’Hara. I totally understand that last sentence has made the movie sound terribly on-the-nose and dull, but trust me when I say it really is quite a fascinating accomplishment. As we come to understand more about the two main characters of this story, we do so by a pleasant combination of naturalistic dialogue and intensely beautiful images of cultural artifacts housed in the museum. Cohen’s camera is measured and self-assured, taking as much time as necessary with each sequence of shots in the museum. (A few of these sequences ended up dragging on a little too long, but only a few.)
Bobby Sommer plays Johann, a middle-aged former tour manager and musician (both of which he is IRL) working at the Kunsthistoriches as an attendant. Spending his days finding interesting new things in paintings he didn’t much care about as a younger, wilder man, Johann remarks that he’s had his share of loudness in his life, and now he’s enjoying his share of quiet. His musings about the place he works and its relation to the rest of his life are thoughtful and almost maudlin, and made all the more poignant by the visuals that accompany them. Mary Margaret O’Hara, herself a fairly accomplished artist, plays Anne, also middle-aged and coming to terms with the fairly fast-paced life she led as a younger woman. When her cousin falls ill, Anne travels from Montreal to Vienna to be with her, creating the occasion for her encounter with Johann at the museum.
O’Hara and Sommer are extraordinary to watch, the two of them thoroughly inhabiting their roles and managing to tell nostalgic stories without delving into the realm of sentiment and sap. Their regular meetings, prefaced by O’Hara’s cousin’s hospital stay, provide instances of wit and insight that mirror some of the pieces in the museum without being too obvious about it, which is pretty incredible. Cohen’s choices in staging and shooting are the most confident he’s ever made, and their effects are undeniably poignant. After making one of the coolest and most energetic music docs of all time (Instrument), it’s interesting to see what the director does with slowness and stillness. Museum Hours is a slow film, it’s a subtle film, and perhaps it’s just a bit too long, but the rewards for going on his tour of art and humanity far outweigh any potential tedium included with it.