Dir: Bent Hamer. 2008. Norway. 90mins.
Bent Hamer’s unique blend of absurdist humour and aching melancholy has never worked better than in O’ Horten, an arthouse charmer which should duplicate a similar sales and distribution pattern to his last Norwegian film Kitchen Stories (2003) and win over a new legion of specialised fans.
Hamer, who scored a minor international ripple with his first English language venture Factotum in 2005, is nevertheless more comfortable working in his native Norwegian and employing his wonderfully deadpan sense of comedy which is somewhere between Aki Kaurismaki and Monty Python.
Central to O’Horten’s success is Bard Owe, a veteran Norwegian actor based in Copenhagen who has worked with everyone from Carl Theodor Dreyer to Lars Von Trier (most memorably as Dr Bondo in The Kingdom series). Owe plays Odd Horten, a 67 year-old train driver and engineer who has spent his life on the railways and is facing retirement.
His existence is one of comfortable old routines - he devotedly feeds the birds in his apartment, he owns a boat which he has always refused to sell, he regularly goes to see a lady friend Mrs Thogersen (Norby) on one of his train stop-offs. He visits his senile old mother, a former ski-jumper, in a retirement home, lamenting the fact that he was too afraid to jump himself in his youth.
But his calm life is unsettled the moment he retires. At his retirement party, he is locked out of his friend’s apartment, climbs up a scaffold and walks into the house of a young family where he falls asleep keeping a young boy company.
When he decides to sell his boat to his friend Flo (Floberg), he goes out to Olso airport where Flo works, but gets lost and ends up smoking his pipe on a runway. When he gets locked in at the local swimming pool, he loses his shoes and ends up walking home in stolen red high-heeled boots.
On the same night, as he strides along the snowy streets of Oslo in his heels, he meets an aging man called Trygve Sissener (Skjonberg) lying on the sidewalk and accompanies him home. The oddball Sissener serves him drinks and suggests that he takes Horten out blindfold driving the following morning. Sure enough, Sissener covers his eyes at the wheel but then pulls over and dies.
Left with Sissener’s dog and a newfound desire to live life to the full, Horten decides to attempt the ski jump that would make his mother proud.
Underneath the whackiness and crisp visual imagery runs a vein of wistful sadness which infuses all Hamer’s works. In this case, the sorrow derives from Horten’s quest for identity once his professional career is at an end, the onset of old age and death.
But even a lovely scene in a shop when he finds out that his friend and lifelong tobacconist has died is peppered with laughs. Hamer can never quite plumb the depths, his natural optimism shining through in the ending and in some laugh-out-loud sequences like the railway engineers’ choo-choo song chanted in tribute at Horten’s retirement party or the chef being ejected from a restaurant while Horten and the other patrons look on unfazed.
The Match Factory
John Christian Rosenlund