Notes on a Love Affair

in 65th Locarno International Film Festival

by Maria Fosheim Lund

As the museum world has opened its doors to the seventh art in more than one way, it seems museums and films are in the midst of a hefty love affair. In recent years, movie audiences have seen films commissioned by the Paris Musée d’Orsay, such as Olivier Assayas’ 2008 Summer Hours (L’heured’été), and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s 2007 Flight of the Red Balloon (Le voyage du ballon rouge). Both films feature significantly, if however briefly, the museum.

Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 film Russian Ark (Russkiy kovcheg) — a unique voyage through the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg — is another celebrated example of film roaming the great European art institutions. Here, the museum is cast in a key role, as Sokurov explores the history of the building and its many uses and functions before ending up as a museum (of course, the Musée d’Orsay was the train station Gare d’Orsay before its present incarnation).

Making a leap from museum galleries, Lech Majewski’s recent film The Mill and the Cross (2011) unsettles and shifts the spectator’s view from the exterior of the artwork to the interior. In this film, the spectator is immersed – surrounded – by the 1564 painting The Way to Calvary by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Peter Breughel is also a central figure, perhaps even a point of departure for the beautiful new film by Jem Cohen, screened in Locarno’s Concorso Internazionale section. Museum Hours, a wonderfully patient and observant film (just like the ideal museum visit) will award the spectator with a series of delights. The structure of the film does indeed function like a museum visit, allowing one’s thoughts to flow freely, moving from object to object, studying some more closely than others. However, it must not be mistaken for a filmed guided museum tour.

As with Breughel’s decentralizing narrative technique, Jem Cohen explores and roams the outskirts of the story. What we first assume to be the central drama turns out not to be. Anne (the great Mary Margaret O’Hara) travels from Montreal to Vienna, where her cousin is in a coma, to offer what comfort she can. Outside of the hospital’s visiting hours, Anne is left to herself in a city she doesn’t know, and quickly finds her way to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Here she meets the helpful and friendly museum guard Johann (Bobby Sommer), who senses Anne’s loneliness. What might have been a tragic family drama instead becomes a story of friendship between Anne and Johann.

In Anne, Johann finds a conversation partner about the art he is quietly surrounded by all day long, but doesn’t often have the chance to engage in, at least not with the museum visitors. He gives Anne a museum pass, and she visits often. The film also follows Anne’s flânerie, as she explores the city both on her own, and with Johann. Cohen, shooting both digitally and with film gives each of the interior and exterior scenes their own distinct aesthetic qualities. The exterior scenes shot on film are often mesmerizing in their beauty, giving the artworks in the museum competition!