- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

“Kitchen Stories,” exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema, is probably too hermetic to attract a large art-house following, but it’s a near-flawless example of deadpan comic miniaturism.

The director and co-writer, Bent Hamer, is now preparing his first American feature, an adaptation of Charles Bukowski’s self-portrait of a drunkard, “Factotum.” In “Kitchen,” he taps into sources of national humor that remain a novelty here, specifically the traits in progressive, bossy Swedes that strike Norwegians as ridiculously presumptuous.

The prologue summarizes the creation of an institute for home research in 1944 that led to an ambitious study of time and motion efficiency among Swedish homemakers. The sponsors herald design improvements that save housewives from walking vast distances in their kitchens in the course of the average year. About a decade later, the same organization authorizes a new study, focusing a tad narrowly on the cooking habits of bachelor farmers in rural southern Norway.

Despite trepidation, a supervisor named Malmberg (Reine Brynolfsson), leads a caravan of trained observers across the border. Each researcher tows a tiny camper van, his storage and sleeping quarters while observing the subjects. Tall chairs are erected in the participating kitchens, allowing a vantage point similar to that of tennis referees. The scientists are supposed to diagram the movements of their subjects while kitchen chores are being performed. Conversational exchanges are frowned on, for the protection of scientific objectivity. The visitors are meant to approximate lofty flies on the wall, near the ceiling, while the residents go about solitary cooking rituals.

The movie isolates us with a passive intruder named Folke Nilsson (Tomas Norstrom), who has been assigned a reluctant host named Isak Bjorvik (Joachim Calmeyer), who proves adept at passive resistance. Despite the fact that they seem to have pipe-smoking in common, the men get off on the wrong foot as partners in science, or mere strangers sharing an awkward proximity. Clever at withholding information for eventual comic payoff, Mr. Hamer delays a full explanation for Isak’s hostility until the later stages of the scenario.

At the outset, it pleases the farmer, who appears to be in his 60s or maybe 70s, to frustrate the observer, evidently a generation younger. Spurning the kitchen more often than not, Isak likes to leave Folke in the dark and heat up furtive meals in his bedroom. The room’s location, over the kitchen, permits Isak to bore a hole in the closet floor that gives him a view of Folke’s high chair. Things do happen in the kitchen: Isak arms mousetraps, and he trims the hair of a neighbor and hangs his laundry in the kitchen, draping a set of long johns to obstruct Folke’s field of vision.

There’s no lack of activity, but it isn’t calculated to fill the institute’s charts with revealing diagrams about bachelor farmers absorbed in meal preparation. Ultimately, the impasse becomes mutually unbearable, and the men exchange brief overtures that lead to a thaw.

Gracefully executed, the movie is never quite generous enough with its humanism and character elaboration. Nevertheless, there’s a good deal to like and admire in this deft and disarming comedy. Spectators on the lookout for something a little different and slyly effective are likely to find this portrait of an odd couple an agreeable surprise.

***

TITLE: “Kitchen Stories”

RATING: No MPAA rating (adult subject matter, with fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Bent Hamer. Screenplay by Mr. Hamer and Jorgen Bergmark. Cinematography by Philip Ogaard. In Norwegian and Swedish with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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