Pantheon Int'l #41: NORWAY - 'Kitchen Stories'

Pantheon Int'l is a daily blogging project; I'll be watching a movie from a different country every day for the next four months and writing about it.   Click here for a complete list with links to each article.

Salmer fra kjøkkenet, d. Bent Hamer, Norway, 2003, 95min., Comedy

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"How can we think we understand anything about people simply by observing them?"

For most of the 20th century, Norway has had to deal with being Sweden's "little brother" on the Scandinavian peninsula.  Smaller and more rural, it has lagged slightly behind Sweden in contributions to culture and modern industry.  So, Norwegian filmmaker Bent Hamer had to go to Sweden to study film.  His film Kitchen Stories finds some of its humor in the differences and rivalries between the two peoples.

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The idea for the film, according to Hamer, came from a popular Swedish household guidebook of the 1950s; they had apparently studied and recorded housewives' movement around the kitchen for five weeks to find out the best and most convenient layout of where all the appliances should go.  The film creates a fictional scenario where this research is supplemented by studying how kitchens are used by single men in rural Norway.  And so, a convoy of research scientists travels with campers from Sweden into Norway, stopping to change from driving on the left side of the road to the right side.

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Researcher Folke has been assigned to aging bachelor Isak, who volunteered for the study for the reward offered, but is hostile to Folke's presence in his kitchen.  The scientist sits in a corner on a ridiculous-looking high chair, with strict instructions not to talk to or interfere with the man he is observing.  But, of course, his presence immediately changes isak's habits; he is so perturbed he starts cooking all his meals on a portable stove in his bedroom upstairs.  Bit-by-bit, Folke's adherence to non-participation starts to break down, accidentally at first, then out of a desire to put Isak at ease, and finally out of mutual loneliness.

Kitchen Stories is a smart little comedy that finds an extraordinary amount of droll humor in its simple premise.  Folke's method of non-participatory observation is humorously akin to researchers watching animals in the wild.  Isak prods him by bringing up recent history to explain why Swedes are such good "observers" (Sweden was a "neutral observer" and non-participant in World War 2, while Norway fought for the allies).  And one of the supervisors of the experiment can't stop complaining about having to drive on the wrong side of the road.

"Left-hand driving is much safer... It's scientifically proven!"

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Although driven much more by characters - and with little dialogue for some time - than plot, Kitchen Stories is not slow or boring at all.  It is full of and finds its humor in little details and observations.  I also really loved the soundtrack which includes several 1950s-era, Scandinavian big band tracks.  At least one of these tracks was actually by an American group, the Delta Rhythm Boys, who moved to Sweden in the '50s, where their music had become popular, when they were no longer making money in the U.S.

If you enjoy quirky, character-oriented comedies, give Kitchen Stories a look on DVD and on Amazon Instant.