Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Kitchen Stories

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

KITCHEN STORIES

7/10

Salmer fra kjokkenet aka Psalms from the Kitchen : Norway (Nor-Swe) 2003 : Bent HAMER : 95 mins

A few observations on Norways entry for the foreign-language Oscar.

  1. This is just the kind of whimsically humanistic, steadily deadpan comedy to tickle the palates of the Oscar committee who in 2002 selected Aki Kaurismakis The Man Without A Past for their five-film shortlist. But this isn’t just an exercise in Scandinavian cosiness one or two sharp edges are occasionally discernible beneath the gentle surface, and the films hidden depths repay closer inspection and analysis.
  1. The set-up is strikingly original: in early 1950s Sweden, the Home Research Institute (a fictional but all-too-plausible quango) carries out studies aimed at rationalising domestic design. Part of their programme involves painstakingly recording how single men use their kitchens by means of installing silent observers who sit on high tennis-umpire chairs in the corner of the room, scrupulously noting down the movements of their subjects. No communication is permitted between observer and observee, and at the end of each day the watcher retires to his two-tone green mini-caravan parked outside.The Institute selects the remote Norwegian village of Landstand as the ideal venue for the observations. One of the participants is crusty, aged, uncommunicative farmer Isak (Joachim Calmeyer), who proves fiercely uncooperative when his guest Folke (Tomas Norstrom) a fussy-budget fiftysomething turns up. But, very gradually, Isak starts to thaw
  1. By means of a delightfully tiny series of increments in gesture and nuance, writer-director Hamer (in collaboration with co-scriptwriter Jorgen Bergmark) patiently develops the Isak-Folke relationship from all-out hostility to touchingly close friendship. This doesn’t go down at all well with Isaks best pal Grant (Bjorn Floberg), whose act of retaliation towards the newcomer seems jarringly out of place in what is otherwise a model of well-observed restraint. This is somewhat typical of a film whose second half in which Hamer has to tackle the tricky issue of developing a story is slightly less satisfying than the first, which is mainly concerned with scene-setting. But the contributions from Calmeyer and Norstrom (who occasionally resembles one of Alec Guinnesss mildly befuddled officials) are strong throughout, in what develops into a two-hander even more engaging than the not-dissimilar French entry The Man on the Train. The climax is perhaps unexpectedly downbeat, but there’s a neatly uplifting coda and, as countryman Isak puts it, Death is predetermined.
  1. As well as charting the infinite gradations in the interaction between Isak and Folke, Hamer and Bergmark simultaneously explore many levels of observation (and not just in the excellent gag in which the Norwegian Isak ticks off the Swedish Folke by reminding him that the latters countrymen were neutral observers during World War II!). Folke observes Isak from his chair. Irked and curious to know whats being written down about him, Isak surreptitiously drills a hole in the ceiling above Folkes chair, so he can spy upon the watcher. Meanwhile, far above their heads, the Institute bigwig Ljungberg (Leif Andree) circles in his state-funded jet but instead of watching the watchers, Ljungberg occupies his time partying with scantily-clad young women: the boss is thus a quasi-divine eye in the sky who has long since abdicated responsibility and interest in his ant-sized subjects. Perhaps its no accident that, occupying the far corner of the kitchen, Folke and the other observers are located exactly where Russians placed their domestic Ikons reminding themselves of Gods ever-vigilant eye.
  1. On a wider level, Ljungberg, Folke, Isak and company are of course all being observed by Hamer, via his cinematographer Philip Ogaard: the results of this celluloid observation being presented for our inspection on the cinema screen (Hamer, however, does miss a trick with his final shot which should really have been taken from the perspective of Folkes lofty indoor perch.) In the cinema, the audience may also observe each other: this is, despite its wry tone and slow pace, a genuine crowd-pleaser which causes an observable (occasionally even hysterical) reaction on many of its viewers. BulBul Film should perhaps install an observer in the corner of each movie-house where Kitchen Stories is screened Cinema Stories being the logical consequence.

11th November, 2003 (seen 29th October : ICA, London London Film Festival)

click here for a full list of films covered at the 2003 London Film Festival

click here for the full list of films entered for the 2003-4 Foreign-Language Oscar

by Neil Young