by HELEN GEIB
Kitchen Stories is an improbably entertaining film about a friendship that arises out of a household efficiency study of Norwegian bachelor farmers.
The film is set c. 1960 in snowbound rural Norway, in an area of small farms and the small towns that serve them. Norwegian writer-director Bent Hamer uses the real phenomenon of post-war home science studies of Swedish housewives as a springboard, conjuring a fanciful research study into the kitchen habits of single men living alone on farms.
The film opens with the arrival of a troop of Swedes dispatched by a Swedish home economics institute to act as observers. An observer’s job is to sit all day in a corner in the kitchen – perched on top of a spindly wooden high-chair – and take absurdly detailed notes on his subject’s traffic pattern. (The observers live for the duration in cozy campers parked next to the farmhouses.) The elderly Isak (Joachim Calmeyer) is one of the subjects. His assigned observer is the middle-aged Folke (Tomas Norstrom), also a man without family, but an itinerant; a professional observer of other people’s homes.
The plot is surpassingly simple: The study begins. Folke breaks the cardinal rule of no contact between observer and subject. An unlikely friendship is established.
The genius of the film lies in the accumulation of small character-driven incidents that fill out, and finally are themselves the real story. Although we learn little of Isak and Folke’s personal biographies, I felt I knew them both very well by the end. Their personalities are revealed gradually by their actions and interactions. Those interactions are often quite funny, especially in the first act when reluctant study participant Isak experiments with passive-aggressive resistance and even some mild psychological warfare. However, while the comedy continues through to the final scene, the balance by the third act has shifted to poignant. The terminus of the late in life friendship is touching and real.
With his co-writer Jorgen Bergmark, Hamer gently injects serious themes of connection and rapprochement. Isak puts one of the film’s main themes into words when he protests that we can’t understand people by just looking (down) at them, and indeed Folke is only able to make sense of Isak’s behavior by talking with him. Lingering bitterness and pain from emotional wounds sustained in the war is a deeply felt undercurrent. (Sweden was a neutral nation during the war even as her neighbor Norway suffered under Nazi occupation.) Folke’s transformative engagement with Isak is a pointed comment on isolationism and the necessity of reconciliation.
It’s hard to capture in words the qualities that make Kitchen Stories so thoroughly delightful. The lead performances are very appealing and the script contributes a good structure and some very good dialogue exchanges, but I think the defining contribution is made by Hamer’s direction. The pacing is engrossing and the film has a distinctive visual sensibility: restrained like its undemonstrative Nordic subjects, but perfectly attuned to their emotions and often – very often – wryly humorous.