If you’ve never heard of the improbably named filmmaker Bent Hamer, don’t feel so all alone. Until this odd little comedy came my way, neither had I.
A little research brings up Hamer’s small filmography, none of which seems to have made the crossing to the United States in any significant capacity, even on the art-house circuit. And if Kitchen Stories is any barometer of his previous work, that’s not terribly surprising.
It’s not that the film isn’t good; far from it. It’s simply that Kitchen Stories is rather specialized in both style and content, and while it gives the viewer enough background to be able to comprehend its cultural underpinnings, the movie doesn’t spoon-feed the information. And it certainly wasn’t made with an eye on the foreign market, which is actually a plus as far as the film is concerned.
There’s never any sense of Hamer or his co-writer, Jorgen Bergmark, approaching the story with a “They might not get this in America” mindset, or, in one notable instance, thinking, “Do we need to remind people that Sweden sat out World War II by claiming neutrality?” They expect the viewer to either know such things, or at least be able to figure them out in context.
More notable, though, is the overall approach to the film, which is somewhere in between Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, making Kitchen Stories almost defiantly out-of-step with modern film. That the movie is a period piece — taking place in the 1950s — helps to smooth over its “foreignness,” in both material and approach.
The story, which is based on actual experiments that were conducted to determine how to get the maximum efficiency out of kitchen design, is delightfully absurd (all the more so for being grounded in fact). Having laboriously determined the best kitchen for the average Swedish housewife, the Home Research Institute has turned its attention to making a similar study on the kitchens of Norwegian bachelors.
The approach is as simple as it is screwy. Researchers — who are perched on ridiculous high chairs like those used by referees at tennis matches — are positioned in a cross-section of such kitchens to carefully map out the movements of “typical” Norwegian bachelors. The trick is that the researchers have to preserve their objectivity, meaning that they cannot interact with their test subjects. As a result, they don’t live with the people they study, but are housed in tiny trailers outside their houses.
Of course, the approach is doomed to grotesque and horrible failure as far as having any real scientific credibility, not in the least because it’s based on the conformist concept of “typical.” But what the idea really fails to take into account is human nature, which, in this case, is the true banana peel under the foot of science.
The story focuses on Swedish researcher Folke Nilsson (Tomas Norstrom), who starts off by assuming that everything and everyone in Norway is wrong. He can’t even comfortably navigate the change from driving on the left side of the road to the right side (in his view, the “wrong side”). Nothing that he at first observes alters his assumptions. He’s had the misfortune of drawing a crotchety old farmer, Isak Bjornsson (Joachim Calmeyer), as his subject. It turns out that Isak only undertook the project on the promise of a free horse (which turns out to be a child’s toy) and regrets his decision so much he won’t let Folke into his house. Isak finally relents, but he remains most uncooperative.
As the two start to get to know each other, the film moves from social satire to a character study of two lonely men. Do not, however, get the notion that this is in any way a typical warm and fuzzy feel-good movie. The bonding of the two men is as dry and deadpan as the film’s sense of humor. And the film’s frankly all the more effective for it, as the rich vein of emotionalism that is inherent in the material has the feeling of something that’s simply too deep for words.
This is not the sort of film you’d want a steady diet of, but as a change of pace from the ordinary, it’s well worth a look. Rated PG for mild language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will sponsor a showing of Kitchen Stories on Sunday, Feb. 20 at 2 p.m., in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St. (behind Taco Bell), Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the second light onto Thompson St., and follow to end.)]