A warmly observed humanist comedy about misguided social conditioning and the redeeming value of friendship and individuality, Bent Hamer’s “Kitchen Stories” has the same appealing light touch as the Norwegian director’s 1995 debut “Eggs.” New pic also has a similar odd couple dynamic and fascination with difficult yet enduring male relationships. The film, however, appears consistently poised to go deeper but instead hangs back, making it less substantial than it might have been. Yet the sweet-natured story’s gentle humor and poignancy should draw appreciative audiences in festival and television slots.
Set in post-WWII Scandinavia, the comedy takes place during a boom period for home science. Sweden’s Home Research Institute is conducting studies aimed at standardizing the average household kitchen to a factory assembly-line model in order to maximize efficiency and livability. This droll starting point strikes at the heart of the Ikea principle.
A team of 18 “observers” is commissioned to collect data from the homes of confirmed bachelors in the rural town of Landstad, Norway. Each is provided a small caravan trailer to live in and an elevated chair to be parked in their host’s kitchen. The observer sits on a tall chair while he studies and charts the householder’s movement, with as little intrusion and verbal interaction as possible.
Regretful of having signed on as a research subject once the project begins, loner Isak (Joachim Calmeyer) shuts his observer Folke (Tomas Norstrom) outside in the snow. But the single-minded Swede observer persists and eventually gains access to the old man’s house. At first, Isak maintains a cool distance, but, gradually, mutual kindnesses alter the two men’s wordless rapport.
However, cracks appear in the scientific process when another observer starts boozing with his host and when Folke falls ill, leaving Isak to document his own movements. This bending of the rules not only incenses Folke’s by-the-book supervisor (Reine Brynolfsson) but has negative fall-out for Landstad local Grant (Bjorn Floberg), until now Isak’s only companion.
The screenplay by Hamer, with collaboration from Jorgen Bergmark, nicely teases out the element of rebellion against engineered behavioral modes and friendship as a source of surprise and fulfillment. While the director is unable to sustain entirely the buoyant humor of the opening stretch, the film delivers plenty of subtle pleasures, thanks in large part to the unforced performances of its two very appealing leads, playing polar opposites that unexpectedly connect.
Visually, also, Hamer achieves restrained but effective results, orchestrating some amusing images such as the parade of green trailers. Production designer Billy Johansson creates a sharply designed but unfussy early ’50s look, photographed by lenser Philip Ogaard in soft, slightly washed-out retro tones.