Norwegian writer-helmer Bent Hamer's fifth feature, tragicomedy "O'Horten," returns to the domestic landscapes, offbeat humanism and stylistic quirks of his earlier work.

Three years after his American project, the gritty Charles Bukowski adaptation “Factotum,” Norwegian writer-helmer Bent Hamer’s fifth feature, tragicomedy “O’Horten,” returns to the domestic landscapes, offbeat humanism and stylistic quirks of his earlier work. Although the bittersweet, episodic tale of an ultra-dedicated locomotive engineer uneasily transitioning into retirement lacks the fully developed characters and tightly constructed narrative of his more poignant and substantial “Kitchen Stories,” it nevertheless provides a warm and gently humorous divertissement that should be appreciated by niche arthouse auds worldwide.

More highly visual mood piece than sustained storytelling, low-key pic unfolds as series of atmospheric vignettes set in a winter landscape that contrast deadpan protag’s routine working life with the absurdist situations he encounters when parted from the world of printed timetables and pre-ordained station stops. However, some episodes (such as prolonged, almost Jacques Tati-like section at the Oslo airport) seem to serve merely as a platform for Hamer’s playful visual style rather than moving story forward.

At the age of 67, loner (but not lonely) Odd Horten (Bard Owe) is forced to step down from his engine-driving job. Opening visuals telegraph how railroad is his life; even his small apartment lies in the shadow of the tracks and is filled with the sound of passing trains.

In one of pic’s drollest scenes, colleagues honor the dignified, pipe-smoking Horten at a retirement dinner featuring their unique take on toasts and party games. The framing of the sequence is a triumph of mise-en-scene, with action unfolding in unusual depth perspective, a Roy Andersson-like compositional device that Hamer effectively uses multiple times.

After a mishap causes Horten to miss his last scheduled run in the driver’s seat, and a visit with his mother at her nursing home leaves him in an unsettled mood, a series of peculiar nighttime scenes play out with the logic of a bad dream. Still clad in his work clothes, he barely escapes making a bad decision about his beloved boat, loses his shoes after-hours at the gym and discovers that his longtime tobacconist has suddenly died. The chronology of these events is unclear, but they evoke the anxiety and lack of control Horten is experiencing about his new life.

Ultimately, an encounter with Trygve Sissener (Espen Skjonberg), an odd elderly gent with a cheerful “it’s never too late” philosophy, inspires Horten to finally take off his uniform and open himself to things he never previously tried. Just-so ending is positive yet unsentimental.

Although liberally sprinkled with moments of delightful, surreal comedy, Hamer’s loosely structured screenplay is also laden with melancholy. It offers some wry dialogue and wordplay, but an overlarge part seems given over to exposition to tie scenes together.

On screen non-stop, Owe is Buster Keaton-like perfection –and unafraid to show his trim physique in a nude swimming scene. Likewise, production package (with exception of overly murky night scenes) is aces, with production design and score the outstanding tech credits.

O'Horten

Norway - Germany - France

Production

A Ocean Films release (in France) of a BulBul Films (Norway)/Scanbox (Norway)/ Pandora (Germany)/ID Memento (France) production. (International sales: The Match Factory, Cologne, Germany). Produced by Bent Hamer. Co-producers, Jim Frazee, Mads Peter Ole Olesen, Christoph Friedl, Karl Baumgartner, Alexander Mallet-Guy. Directed, written by Bent Hamer.

Crew

Camera (color), John Christian Rosenlund; editors, Pal Gengenbach, Silje Nortseth; music, Kaada; art director, Kalli Juliusson; set decorator, Olivier Macouiller; costume designer, Anne Pedersen; sound (Dolby Digital), Morten Solum. Reviewed at the Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 21, 2008. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Bard Owe, Ghita Nhorby, Espen Skjonberg, Henny Moan, Bjorn Floberg, Kai Remlov, Per Jansen, Bjarte Hjelmeland, Gard Eidsvold, Lars Oyno, Anette Sagen, Bjorn Jenseg.

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