The sly deadpan humor that audiences have come to expect from Bent Hamer, most recently on display in his 2010 comedy, “Home for Christmas,” is comparatively absent from “1001 Grams,” a gentle and melancholy portrait of a Scandinavian scientist’s gradual emotional awakening. Slender, delicate and filled with scarcely enough narrative incident to furnish an anecdote, this likable, low-key effort is nonetheless quietly moving and exquisitely made, suffused with a depth of feeling that belies its minimalist construction. Although selected to represent Norway in this year’s foreign-language Oscar race, the film seems unlikely to amass a following outside the writer-director’s fanbase.
In his 2003 hit, “Kitchen Stories,” Hamer turned a straight-faced parody of scientific objectivity and rigor into a warm celebration of friendship and individuality. In “1001 Grams,” he delves into the chilly emotional life of Marie (Ane Dahl Torp), one of the designated keepers of the national kilogram prototype — a circular lump of metal (90% platinum, 10% iridium) protected by two bell jars — which must be handled with the utmost care when removed from its vault at the Norwegian Institute of Weights & Measures. Marie’s existence is marked by a similar blend of precision and fragility. Intelligent, soft-spoken and sternly beautiful, she lives in a sparsely furnished modernist apartment and drives a super-compact electric car, attending to personal and professional matters alike with neatness and economy.
Things begin to change when Marie’s ailing father, Ernst (Stein Winge), a respected scientist in the same field, suffers a serious heart attack, requiring her take his place at a kilo seminar held by the Intl. Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in Paris, where all global prototypes will be recalibrated against the international standard. The film wrings some mild, almost imperceptible comedy from the conference, showing scientists dozing off while a speaker drones on and on, and later passionately debating whether the lack of a universally agreed-upon standard of measurement could lead to war (an uncharacteristically stiff scene, awkwardly performed in English). At one point, every attendee is allowed a rare, fleeting glimpse of the international kilo, which is kept and displayed under conditions that would seem extreme for the Hope Diamond.
Throughout, Hamer works with a level of dramatic restraint that proves at once typical of his entire oeuvre and uniquely well suited to this particular protagonist. Significant life moments — Marie’s break-up with a long-term boyfriend, her father’s eventual death — are dramatized with a few telling shots and practically zero exposition. Marie herself says so little that John Erik Kaada’s maundering, minor-key score, which plays beneath almost every other scene, seems to be trying to fill in the long silences. Over the course of the film, Marie repeatedly makes the trek between France and Norway, and Hamer seems as fascinated by her comings and goings — the long car rides, the sometimes troublesome passage through airport security — as by whatever she says or does once she arrives at her destination.
Despite the subdued register, the thematic concerns explored in “1001 Grams” are not exactly subtle. Before he passes, Ernst ruminates on the weight of the soul (admittedly, with nowhere near the philosophical bombast of Alejandro Gonzalez’s Inarritu’s much heavier “21 Grams”), leaving us to ponder the lasting impact of a life lived with excessive caution. Our attention is repeatedly drawn to the fact that Marie’s patterns are too calm, too routine, too measured, so to speak — a charge that could also be leveled at the film itself, with its spare, picturesque art direction (by Astrid Astrup and Tim Pannen) and clean, symmetrical widescreen framing (by d.p. John Christian Rosenlund).
Disaster eventually strikes and Marie’s composure inevitably shatters, but there are those in her midst — chief among them a handsome driver (Laurent Stocker) whom she befriends in Paris — willing to help her pick up the pieces. For all its transparency and lack of surprises, there’s something unmistakably pleasing, even satisfying, about the trim, elegant proportions of “1001 Grams,” much of it due to Torp’s performance; initially withholding and even mask-like, it deepens by the end into a fully expressive and considered piece of acting. In his own reserved way, Hamer remains a sharp critic of conformity in modern life, of the ways in which human beings try to impose a sense of order on disorder — whether it’s the sight of various seminar attendees walking in a straight line, all sporting identical umbrellas, or a simple shot of Marie weighing her salad at the lunch counter. Modest it may be, but there’s no mistaking “1001 Grams” for the work of any other filmmaker.