Kitchen Stories (Salmer fra kjøkkenet)


Robin Clifford 
Kitchen Stories

Kitchen Stories

Laura Clifford 

In the 1950’s the Swedish government became involved in social engineering as a means of improving the lot in life for its citizens. One study was designed to help define the ultra-efficient “standard kitchen” and a team of observers, armed with research charts and tiny caravans in which to live, are sent to a remote part of Norway to expand the study to include elderly bachelors in director Bent Hamer’s “Kitchen Stories.

Robin:
For a film that has virtually no dialog between the stars for the first half and where nothing really happens for much of the movie, “Kitchen Stories” is a remarkably warm, funny and thoughtful (and a little sad) piece of work.

A line of green caravans trundles across the frontier between Sweden and Norway, passing unobtrusively through the border checkpoint. The drivers grouse about having to switch to the right side of the road (at the time, the Swedes, like the English, still drove on the left side of the road) as they are given their assignments. Each observer is paired with an elderly volunteer who will go about his day-to-day life under the researcher’s watchful eye. The observation team is supplied with oversized high chairs to keep them apart from the household action.

One observer, Folke (Tomas Norstrom), has a problem with his subject, Isak (Joachim Calmyer), who changed his mind and does not want to be a part of the study. Folke’s boss intercedes and Isak very reluctantly agrees to let the observer into his home. Folke dutifully perches on his chair in the kitchen and begins his watcher duties, recording Isak’s every move. Isak, however, is a bit of a rebel and begins to silently do things to annoy his unwanted guest – leaving the faucet dripping, turning out the lights and, most importantly, cooking in his bedroom to avoid Folke’s watchful eye.

The pair continue their mute relationship – the institute running the study requires that the observer not talk or interact with the subject – until, one day, Isak runs out of tobacco. Folke’s makes the first peace overture and tosses a packet of pipe tobacco onto the table. Isak soon reciprocates and the first words pass between them: “Time for coffee,” says Isak as he pours. Folke comes down from his high chair, gratefully drinks the coffee and says, “Thank you.” Slowly but surely, the barriers fall and the germ of a friendship takes form. Meanwhile, Isak’s tractor-driving friend, Grant (Bjorn Floberg), becomes increasingly concerned that he is losing his best buddy to Folke.

A film without much dialog and virtually no action, in the traditional sense, should be, by all rights, boring. But, from the start, “Kitchen Stories” captures your attention with its tongue in cheek humor, droll wit and an amazing amount of chemistry between the main characters, Isak and Folke. The rhythm of their day-to-day existence is slow and relaxed and, as the ice breaks between them, a warm, caring friendship builds.

“Kitchen Stories” makes a statement, too, on the Swedish government’s policy to use observation, rather than interaction, as the source for social change. "How the @#$% can one know anything about ones’ fellow man, if not speaking to him?" inquires one of the disenchanted researchers who could not take the restriction against normal human contact. Folke, as his time with Isak stretches and he realizes the veracity of the other researcher’s query, begins his own subtle rebellion against the study.

Hamer’s criticism of the Swedish social order of the 50’s notwithstanding, “Kitchen Stories” is really the story of the friendship that develops between Isak and Folke. The rocky, silent beginning of their relationship is slowly replaced by civility, at first, when Folke makes the first peace gesture with the pipe tobacco. The acquaintance becomes a solid friendship when Folke celebrates his new buddy’s birthday and they tie one on. But, the comradeship violates the dictates of the research study and, when Folke’s boss learns of the deception, he is fired. This turns out to be a good thing for Folke as he unceremoniously dumps his trailer at the Swedish border and returns to his friend.

Techs are solid all around with the production design capturing the look and feel of 1950’s Sweden. The vintage, green caravans and ancient Volvos lend nicely to the period feel. The giant high chairs the researchers are equipped with provide an inspired touch as Folke climbs up to take his post as fly-on-the-wall. Lensing, by Philip Ogaard, is nicely composed, especially with the bookend shots of the convoy of caravans at it first enters, then later leaves, Norway.

“Kitchen Stories” will make you laugh and make you cry. I have to say I love a movie that, in the end, has me simultaneously all teary eyed and smiling. I give it an A-.

Laura:
In 1944, Sweden created the Home Research Institute (HFI) to study efficiency in the home. After tests and studies resulted in kitchen redesigns estimated to save Swedish housewives hundreds of miles of walking per year, the Swedes decided to broaden their scope and study a large concentration of single men in a remote part of neighboring Norway.  Equipped with standard mint green Volvos hauling ovoid mint green trailers, a group of researchers cross the border to observe their volunteer hosts in Norway's submission for the 2003 Foreign Language Film Oscar, "Kitchen Stories."

Cowriter (with Jörgen Bergmark)/director Bent Hamer's sweet ode to a simpler style of pre-technology life is sly, warm and bittersweet.  Taking the 'stranger in a strange land' concept and twisting it sideways, Hamer says a lot about humanity with few words.

After a quick introduction of efficiency studies accompanied by the type of goofy looking innovations of a 1940s "World of Tomorrow" exhibit, HFI head Dr. Ljungberg (Leif Andrée) leaves the entire Norwegian project in the hands of Sixten Malmberg (Reine Brynolfsson, "A Song for Martin") before flying off in his silver plane with a blonde and mysterious words about having to take care of the Finns.  Malmberg, who gets nauseous driving on the right hand side of the road, dispatches his standardized troops who all shift from left to right at the Swedish/Norwegian border (this visual is a typical display of the dry wit shown throughout the film).

One of Malmberg's researchers, Folke Nilson (Tomas Norström), is guided to his host's home by a neighbor driving a bright red tractor who warns Folke that Isak (Joachim Calmeyer, "Herman") now regrets volunteering for the project.  Folke persists, climbing a ladder to look in upstairs windows when a knock on the front door gets no response, and eventually, after Isak relents, settles in a corner of his host's kitchen, observing from a perch on a stilt-like chair.  Here he draws diagrams of Isak's traffic patterns within his kitchen, but Isak perverts the experiment by cooking upstairs in his bedroom, where he has drilled a hole from which to observe Folke below.  Isak continues to play head games with the silent Folke, until the two men come to an understanding sharing a pouch of tobacco.  The friendship which forms, is, of course, strictly forbidden by the HFI.

Hamer is a master of the visual gag, turning such simple things as a misplaced salt shaker into a scene of tense hilarity.  The bureaucracy of the HFI is harpooned easily and often. Malmberg marvels over Folke and his other men's 'odd' findings while they fight, and sometimes lose, the urge to actually communicate with their hosts.  The simple rhythms of life in Isak's part of the world are thrown off course by the very group who seeks to document them. In one telling moment, Isak compares Folke's initial behavior with Sweden's 'observational' stance during WWII.  When we learn how Isak was duped into volunteering for the study, the miscommunication is both funny and sad, as well as a foreshadowing of the film's conclusion.

The cast is perfect.  Tomas Norström, who looks somewhat like Wallace of "Wallace & Gromit" fame, makes Folke a kind man trying to do the right thing in absurd circumstances.  Joachim Calmeyer makes a nice gradual shift from passively hostile to warmly accepting.  Bjørn Floberg ("Music for Weddings and Funerals") makes the opposite shift as Isak's neighbor Grant, who becomes jealous of his old friend's new friend.  Sverre Anker Ousdal (1997's "Insomnia") is entertaining as the local doctor who examines patient lungs with cigarette or pipe firmly planted in mouth.

Hamer and his cinematographer Philip Øgaard ("Aberdeen") have a terrific sense of mise en scene. Colors and shapes are all carefully composed within the frame.  Composer Hans Mathisen's simple, sweet music is the perfect accompaniment to this gently told tale.

"Kitchen Stories" makes smart observations about human behavior with warmth, humor and heart. It's a small gem of a film.

B+

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