Cold Feet

Coping with uncertainty in Scandinavia and Hollywood

The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known.

—Werner Heisenberg

The principle, and the comedy, of the wry Norwegian import Kitchen Stories is indeed that of uncertainty. Written and directed by one Bent Hamer (whose name gives apt indication as to the shape of his antic sensibility), the movie is a gentle, at times disarming pantomime about our hopeless inability to view an object moving through space without disturbing it, particularly when said object is another human being. In short, it's Heisenberg by way of Jacques Tati. Yet the movie that Hamer's may immediately recall for most viewers isn't another live-action comedy, but rather Sylvain Chomet's recent animated frolic The Triplets of Belleville. Both films premiered at Cannes in 2003, both are consciously made under the sign of Tati, and both are infatuated with all things 1950s to the point that what's onscreen resembles less an accurate period re-creation than a nostalgic dreamscape of Decca records and art-deco automobiles. And in a way, Hamer's achievement is the more remarkable in that he has figured out how to "animate" his absurdities using real flesh and bone.

Set at an unspecified time during the post-World War II industrial boom, as the winds of efficiency and modernization blow around the world with gale-force intensity, Kitchen Stories tells of a team of observers from Sweden's Home Research Institute who travel, in a caravan of tiny auto trailers, to the rural farming village of Landstad, Norway, in order to commence a top-secret bit of R&D. As an HRI corporate film explains early on, the institute's observers have previously studied and documented the kitchen behaviors of the average Swedish housewife, conceptualizing improvements in kitchen design that have eliminated countless overexpenditures of wifely energies. ("Instead of having to walk the equivalent of Sweden to the Congo during a year of cooking, she now only needs to walk to Northern Italy in order to get food on the table," the narrator dryly informs.) Emboldened by its success at home, the institute now seeks to conduct a similar study of the kitchen habits of single men. Landstad, it just so happens, is a hotbed of lonely bachelors.

In the buildup to one of Hamer's most sublime gags, each observer is paired off with a volunteer research subject and given strict instructions not to interfere, in any way, with his daily activities. Rather, the observer is merely to take his designated place in the corner of the kitchen, seated in a ridiculously oversized highchair, and map the subject's every move. The ensuing image, of mild-mannered Folke (Tomas Norström) glaring down on dyspeptic Isak (Joachim Calmeyer), recalls the primitive form of reality television from Albert Brooks' Real Life, with Folke less fly-on-the-wall than giant spider tangled up in his own unwieldy web. It is also, for Isak, the source of considerable annoyance, and much of Kitchen Stories is devoted to the middle-aged farmer's wily efforts to make Folke's job as difficult as possible. He begins taking meals in his bedroom rather than the kitchen, regularly leaves Folke sitting alone in the dark, and even proceeds to turn the tables, spying on Folke through a peephole in the kitchen ceiling—the observed taking a private thrill in becoming the observer. Meanwhile, Folke finds himself consumed by temptation all around, devilishly possessed to do the very thing he has been warned not to do—break bread with Isak.

Heisenberg aside, Kitchen Stories isn't saying anything particularly deep, but it does hum along nicely for its first hour or so, powered by this unspoken comic tension. Then, Hamer's characters begin to speak—Folke and Isak electing to relax their frosty standoff—and the film becomes an altogether more conventional, even sentimental affair. Not unenjoyable, mind you, but a warm meditation on unlikely friendships and the virtues of nonconformity that never quite approaches the grandeur of Patrice Leconte's similar-themed Man on the Train, and deviates sharply in tone from the bustling lunacy that has preceded it. Perhaps such a shift is inevitable; without it, Kitchen Stories might have just floated off—as Tati occasionally risked doing—into the ether. But even given that, one still senses that Hamer, like an observer from some Film Research Institute perched high above his own movie, seems much more comfortable dealing with people in the abstract than the specific; as soon as he finds himself confronted with actual characters (as opposed to archetypes), he's at something of a loss about what to do with them. That's a fault, to be sure, but not one critical enough to take away from the fact that, in the landscape of contemporary movie comedies, Kitchen Stories is like a rejuvenating blast of crisp Nordic air.

Kitchen Stories was produced and directed by Bent Hamer; written by Hamer in cooperation with Jörgen Bergmark; and stars Tomas Norström and Joachim Calmeyer. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana.

 
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