The appeal of a quirky little Norwegian film called Kitchen Stories arises from the unlikeliest of sources--a series of domestic studies conducted in the early 1950s by a group of Swedish efficiency experts. The mission of the Home Research Institute, as far as anyone could tell, was to chart the movements of housewives in their kitchens, with an eye toward easing the burden of getting meatball and lutefisk safely to the table. Emboldened by their successes, the intrepid scientists then traipsed off to neighboring Norway, where 18 "observers," perched in high chairs like tennis referees, began studying the kitchen routines of single men living alone in the remote farming district of Landstad.
Sound like the stuff of a Monty Python sketch? Maybe, but writer-director Bent Hamer (Eggs, Water Easy Reach) has some other things in mind, too. He not only satirizes the follies of petty bureaucrats at large but comes up with a touching meditation on the ways human beings grapple with loneliness. The surreal mischief in Kitchen Stories is counterbalanced by the kind of bleak minimalism of language and movement you find in, say, a Samuel Beckett play. But in the end a hard-won affirmation of life's possibilities gets the best of pessimism.
The film's principals are one Folke Nilsson (Tomas Norstrom), a mild-mannered researcher wearing a plain gray suit, accustomed to doing as he's told; and the suspicious, long-faced farmer he's been assigned to observe, Isak Bjorvik (Joachim Calmeyer), a dour loner who sits silently smoking a huge pipe and, once intruded upon, does all his meager cooking upstairs in his bedroom. According to the rules of the kitchen study, Folke is prohibited from speaking with Isak or otherwise taking part in the life of the household. Such are the goofy tenets of social engineering in postwar Sweden; such are the muddied pathways to "progress."
Need we add that it's now the dead of winter in rural Landstad? Or that poor Folke is required to sleep in a tiny snail-shell camper parked next to Isak's farmhouse? Or that the old farmer has his own ideas about scientific research, which include drilling a peephole in the ceiling and hanging his wet laundry in the kitchen to obscure his visitor's view?
And there the stalemate of two isolated men might remain--they comprise an odd couple that doesn't even argue--were it not for the urges of human nature. Slowly, mutual wariness gives way to curiosity, curiosity to a few words about how to boil potatoes, those words to the beginnings of a friendship. Folke's stern boss, Malmberg (Reine Brynolfsson), and Isak's only friend, a neighboring farmer called Grant (Bjorn Floberg), may not approve, but the need for interpersonal communication will trump the rules of bogus science every time, it says here. By the time Malmberg sees what's happened, Folke and Isak have quietly declared their independence from the entire experiment. The best parallel in American movies I know of to this delightful rebuke of Orwellian rigidity is 1957's Desk Set, in which computer scientist Spencer Tracy tries to automate a television research department run by a resistant Katharine Hepburn. Instead, the adversaries fall in love.
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In Kitchen Stories, Hamer gives us a less romantic denouement, as befits a modest film whose only supporting players are a sick horse and an old tractor in need of a tune-up. But this wonderful filmmaker never stints when it comes to deflating pomposity and exalting the triumph of faith over logic. The vision of a dozen identical 1953 Volvos towing a dozen identical little campers across a frigid Scandinavian landscape says all we need to know about the extremes of social science and conformity. The vision of old Isak, drunk on Folke's whiskey, asleep in the researcher's high chair as the outraged Malmberg bursts into the kitchen, is the perfect expression of well-meant plans put asunder by people who refuse to be categorized or dissected. This is not the kind of film that will attract Chinese-army-sized audiences any more than last year's charming Norwegian import Elling, about the friendship of two ex-mental patients who become roommates in a state-subsidized apartment. But if you're in the mood for a quiet, beautifully acted little drama, liberally spiked with comedy, about the universal desires of the human heart, this may be the obscure gem you're looking for.