Kitchen Stories
directed by Bent Hamer
(MGM, 2003)

This film, folks, is about friendship and loneliness, about being a stranger and finding a home among strangers. And it's all buried in a plotline I feel confident you haven't come across before: 1950s Swedes studying the kitchen habits of Norwegian bachelors.

Kitchen Stories -- or, for the speakers of Swedish among you, Salmer fra kjokkenet -- will be achingly slow for some tastes. The fastest vehicle in this film is a tractor, for instance, unless you count a car tugging a camping trailer behind it.

Nobody speaks for ... long ... stretches (so you won't strain your eyes on the subtitles). It pretty much takes place in the kitchen of Isak Bjornsson, a taciturn farmer who's volunteered to be the subject of the Swedish study -- mainly because he thought he'd get paid with a horse, when all the Swedes hand him is one of those little red-painted Swedish folk art horses.

When the observer, Folke Nilsson, is not towering above Isak's tiny kitchen in his lifeguard-style chair, he is ensconced in his even smaller trailer.

So. A rather timid Folke (Tomas Norstrom) arrives to observe Isak's moves in the kitchen. (The whole point of the Swedish study is to make more efficient kitchens. It's all rather "the State knows best.") Isak, a reluctant participant, at first refuses Folke entry to the house. After several sessions of pleading from an outdoor ladder into Isak's bedroom window (each time, with an additional townsperson on the ladder pleading on Folke's behalf), Folke finally gets to enter, set up his chair and take his perch.

There are rules, and the most important is: subject and observer must never interact.

But day after day of such close contact, without interaction, isn't human. And the battle for control between Folke and Isak, how they come to an impasse and then resolve it, is really the heart of this kitchen story.

It comes as a shock when they finally speak to each other -- and really, they have more in common than you might expect, since one man is content to live alone on his farm, except for his horse, and the other is content to spend his life observing the lives of others.

Kitchen Stories isn't for everyone. But as a quiet little movie under the radar, one that looks at a culture on the cusp of slowly dissolving and finds something worth saving, it's a little gem.

by Jen Kopf
26 November 2005

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