FILM ONLY REVIEW
Believing that he'll receive a horse in return, stubborn, set in his ways, bachelor Isak (Joachim Calmeyer) agrees to take part in a study by the Swedish Housekeeping Institute: they've already done research into the kitchen habits of Swedish housewives and now they want to turn their attention to those of Norwegian bachelors. The set-up is simple: one observer will be matched up with each participant and will sit in a high chair in one corner of their kitchen, having no contact, verbal or otherwise, just taking notes as the subject goes about their work in the kitchen as usual. But when Isak receives an ornamental toy horse, he decides go "on strike", making things difficult for his patient observer, Folke (Tomas Norström). Isak switches the lights off when he leaves the kitchen fully aware that Folke isn't allowed to get down from his perch and turn them back on, and he leaves a tap dripping so that Folke is forced to listen to it for hours on end as Isak starts taking the carrying out his usual kitchen chores upstairs in his bedroom instead.
One night when Folke is asleep in his caravan parked outside Isak's house, one of his colleagues comes hammering on the door in a state. He's been reprimanded by the boss for having started drinking beer with his study subject. He asks Folke how they can possibly learn anything when they aren't allowed to communicate which gets Folke thinking. The following day when Isak is searching for the salt cellar to season his boiled egg, Folke gives a little cough and an almost imperceptible nod of the head to tell Isak where he can find it. Over illicit cups of coffee, the men start to talk and discover that in spite of their differences, they have much in common.
"Kitchen Stories" is a simple film that, while it is hugely predictable in terms of outcomes, provides plenty of surprises in terms of the fine details. It's set in the 1950s and this provides a thrilling visual aspect to the film which makes it quite quirky. In the opening sequence the observers arrive in the remote village of Landstad in a convoy of tiny caravans in which the observers will sleep during the study. Everything is perfectly in period but rather than present a piece of history, it comes across as a modern fairytale as this snaking line of metal boxes winds into the village which has a deep blanket of snow. Throw in the quaint rural houses and the simple country folk and you're halfway to a modern Hansel and Gretel.
We associate this forward-thinking, serious attitude with the Swedes and this is played on in the film. There's a strong contrast between the business-like Swedes who need to get the job done with ruthless efficiency and the naïve, sheltered Norwegians who find the whole idea of being observed doing what they do without thinking as really quite bizarre. A Norwegian friend told me that there are lots of little jokes that Swedish and Norwegian viewers will pick up on that might not be so obvious to other viewers but on the whole I could see how the relationship between Norway and Sweden was being portrayed. It's all very gentle humour, though, and even though it's a Norwegian film, the Norwegians set themselves up for as much teasing as is directed towards the Swedes.
Although the film has English subtitles, one of the things I liked best about it was that, for at least the first half of "Kitchen Stories", you don't need them at all because there is so little dialogue. Folke and Isak don't communicate verbally, everything is done through facial expressions and body language and this shows off the brilliant casting. The sneaky little glances Isak casts towards Folke to check whether his annoying actions are having the desired effect are so naughty while Folke's patient monitoring of Isak's increasingly bizarre way of carrying out his chores is pure comedy. There's a wonderful scene where, knowing that Folke is plotting the path Isak takes around the kitchen, deliberately moves backwards and forwards in a totally contrived way to scupper the results of the observation. You don't need dialogue or subtitles to appreciate the humour.
For such a simple story, writer-director Bent Hamer packs in plenty to think about. The main focus of the story is the friendship between the two men but the relationship between Sweden and Norway is a recurring theme that provides much of the humour. In one scene, one of the observers complains at having to drive on the right in Norway saying that it's starting to make him feel unwell (at that time Swedes drove on the left though this has since changed). The sub-plot (or rather the enabling plot) of the "scientific" research is fun and interesting at the same time; I'm sure the more laid back Norwegians were enjoying a little dig at the progressive Swedes here!
I'd pretty much recommend "Kitchen Stories" across the board; there's no swearing, no sexual content and although it's rather quirky, there's not that intense darkness so common in Scandinavian films. "Kitchen Stories" is simple film in terms of subject matter and presentation but it is a memorable one that is utterly charming and compelling. Highly recommended.
Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older
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