Dir: Bent Hamer. Norway, 2003. 95mins
A charmingly glum, low-key audience-pleaser, Norwegian comedy Kitchen Stories was always likely to be one of the sweeter features on offer at Cannes. Although its drily reserved Nordic humour never approaches the harder edges of, say, Aki Kaurismaki's comedies, it should appeal to anyone with a taste for benign melancholy. Snazzy art direction and largely visual humour should give it solid cult appeal. International sales should be modest but healthy, and it will surely be a firm favourite with festival programmers looking to schedule more demanding fare.
After a curious romantic Spanish detour with his second feature Water Easy Reach, director Hamer has returned, on a visibly bigger budget, to the deadpan domestic comedy that marked his 1995 debut, the faintly Beckettian Eggs. The time is the early 1950s and Sweden's Home Research Institute (HRI) is conducting a research programme into domestic habits, to rationalise the layout of kitchens along industrial lines.
Armed with clipboards and diagrams, a Swedish delegation arrives in a Norwegian rural district, with the aim of mapping the kitchen routines of single men. Method demands that the observer cannot intervene in household life, only watch and note, and never converse with the subject of surveillance. One hapless observer, Nilsson (Nostroem) is assigned a particularly reluctant farmer, the cantankerous old Isak (Calmeyer), who at first won't even let him into the house. Soon, though, Nilsson takes up his vantage point on a wooden platform perched ludicrously in the corner of the kitchen - only to find that Isak is watching him, through a hole in the kitchen ceiling.
This bizarre wordless situation could have made a fruitful set-up for the entire film, given Hamer's delicate way with visual gags: the sight of a stopper gently sliding into the spyhole in the ceiling is one of those minor felicities that prove a director's confidence in his comedy. The film loses momentum, however, once the two men's relations start to thaw; inevitably, they become best buddies, and then much of the comedy derives from Nilsson's attempts to hide the collapse of his venture from his protocol-obsessed superior.
The film is a curious blend of registers, at once a sort of male romance, a satire on social control and a gentle farce about national misunderstandings. The precise, fussy Swedes are out of their depth in the more rough-and-ready climate of Norway, and while the Norwegians make sour jokes about Sweden, the Swedes snipe at the Finns. The great joke of the film is the absurd attempt to engineer a perfectly calibrated society, and while Hamer embraces the anarchy that is bound to erupt from such repression, his visual style shows him to be very much in love with cleanness and precision. Billy Johansson's design includes some wonderful retro pastiches, notably the caravans like little space capsules, and Philip Ogaard's photography creates a chilly, pale-green polar look.
Hamer has a true flair for choosing faces: in particular, Nostroem's flawlessly bland features lend themselves to his immaculately dithering portrayal of an amiable dullard. Hans Mathisen's period-styled cool jazz score adds a little lyrical snap, just occasionally bringing an excess of saccharine sentiment. Like the Swedish visitors, this gentle exercise in Tati-esque comedy eventually outstays its welcome, but mostly it provides a discreetly agreeable time.
Prod co: Bulbul Film AS
French dist: Les Films du Losange
Sales co: Celluloid Dreams
Prods: Bent Hamer
Scr: Hamer, Joergen Bergmark
Cinematography: Philip Ogaard
Ed: Pal Gengenbach
Prod des: Billy Johansson
Costumes: Karen Fabritius Gram
Music: Hans Mathisen
Main cast: Joachim Calmeyer, Tomas Norstroem, Reine Brynolfsson, Bjorn Floberg