Oct. 30 2013 12:00 AM

‘Museum Hours’ subtly, masterfully regards life as art

Representative art requires a certain amount of unpacking in order to be thoroughly appreciated. If it’s a contemporary piece, it usually benefits from a discussion about how it fits into modern culture and perhaps trying to name the world leaders (or celebrities) being alluded to. In the case of a historical piece, a little digging helps put things in context of social, economic and technological norms for the era. Sometimes you actually have to ask: Is that a pipe?

In the case of “Museum Hours,” an Austrian-American joint venture film playing through next week at Studio C!, filmmaker Jem Cohen has crafted a self-explanatory art film that brazenly compares itself with the works of Pieter Bruegel, the influential Flemish painter who depicted the lives of 16th century peasants and hid the fantastical in the mundane. It would appear at first to be a haughty feat, holding a new work — and a film, no less! — up to an artist who challenged the status quo to redefine visual art and say, “We’re not so different, you and I.” That is, if Cohen didn’t do it so masterfully, damn him.

The film is set primarily inside the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna, where 60ish Johann (Bobby Sommer) whiles away the twilight of his life soaking in some of the world’s greatest art. Here he meets Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a middle-aged Canadian in town visiting a distant cousin who has fallen into a coma. Anne is uneducated and traveling on borrowed money; it’s obvious she never figured life out enough to rise above lower middle class, but she seems happy enough.

The two strike up a companionship based on genialness and perhaps a little boredom. Each finds the other curious, and uses the relative anonymity of talking to a near perfect stranger to ask burning questions and share long-held secrets. It’s not so much a friendship as it is a mutual confession.

The acting is subtle; conversations are scripted to sound documentary in nature. As Anne waits for her cousin’s condition to improve (it doesn’t), Johann shows her around his home city, and finds himself re-appreciating everything from the breathtaking architecture to the puzzling modern street art.

The film’s pace is deliberately slow, making it as pleasant and contemplative as an afternoon at the museum. A fair portion of the film is taken up by long, lyrical pans up and down the hallways of the Kunsthistorisches; a docent even pops up at one point to help a group analyze some of the works in the Bruegel Room, as Johann (and we) listen in. She helps the group see what it is that made Bruegel so revolutionary — he was instrumental in giving human figures equal attention to landscape — and Cohen then deftly intercuts close-ups of the art with shots from Vienna: birds sitting on telephone wires, elderly people crossing the street, posters peeling off a cathedral wall. Message received, loud and clear. This may be the first movie to come with built-in viewing instructions.

Perhaps the best aspect of the film is that it actually makes you want to visit your local art museum and spend some time, you know, thinking about art. What is art but a reflection of the world? Can art truly stand outside the politics of its time, or is it as trapped as we are? Are we still just peasants working the land set against a backdrop of beauty that we’re too busy to appreciate?

“Museum Hours” plays at Studio C!,

1999 Central Park Drive, Okemos. 9:15 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1; 6:30 p.m. & 9:15 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5.