Spend a good amount of time looking at a painting—say, Pieter Bruegel’s The Peasant Wedding—and you’ll be surprised what you notice lurking within the canvas: grotty characters tucked in the margins, the exquisite attention to detail, a host of odds and ends that add an invaluable sense of a world outside of the frame. You’ll learn plenty about this specific artist’s output in Jem Cohen’s free-form character study; the painter’s work is lensed, lectured about, stared at and debated as folks pass through the Bruegel Room in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, many of them observed by an elderly guard (Bobby Sommer). When a tourist (singer Mary Margaret O’Hara) stops this employee to ask directions, the subject of this Flemish Renaissance artist comes up yet again. The duo will discuss other things as time goes by, from the European city’s culture to the reason she’s visiting in the first place. Those framed sketches hanging on the walls and their significance, however, hover over every exchange.
Were Cohen’s movie merely a let-us-now-praise-dead-white-men dissertation, you’d still walk away with enough historical knowledge to earn a college credit. But the indie filmmaker’s aims are far more ambitious. He wants you to experience every aspect of Museum Hours—its pillow shots of Vienna and its citizens, its sprawling conversations, the growing platonic bond between its characters and, yes, Bruegel the Elder’s dense pageantry of peasantry—with the same contemplative intensity that you would give to a canon-worthy etching. And by slowing everything down to the speed of a gallery-exhibit stroll, the filmmaker crafts his own tapestry of cityscapes and chance encounters that reflects back at its viewers. You'll find your share of standout moments, notably O’Hara’s showstopping lullaby to her cousin. (If nothing else, this film reminds you of this Canadian performer's abundant charms.) The real strength of Cohen’s occasionally didactic drama, though, is in the way the film redirects your focus to the periphery and reminds you of the richness that resides there. It was an achievement Bruegel mastered early on. And it’s what makes Museum Hours its own work of art.
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