Kitchen Stories

Norway (Salmer fra kjøkkenet) / Sweden (Psalmer från köket) 2003.

Screened at Leeds International Film Festival.

This is a gentle but very entertaining period comedy. Set in the 1950s, the Swedish Home Research Institute decides to study the use of kitchens by single men in rural Norway. The traditional enmity between the two countries is one source of humour. Most of the film follows the observation of Isak Bjorvik (Joachim Calmeyer), living alone on his small farm, by the Institute’s Folke Nilsson (Tomas Norström). What starts out as a relationship as fraught as any marital conflict develops into a harmonious pairing. As one of the characters observes, “How can we understand people simply by observing them.”

The two lead players catch their characters beautifully, and the great pleasure of the film is watching their slow but developing interaction. The film emphasises this by its focus on significant detail: the misplacement of a slat cellar, the coffee pot and cups set out on a table, a small spy hole in the ceiling. Actions and responses recur but with small but notable variations.

Isak and Folke’s interaction is watched closely by Grant (Bjørn Floberg) and with increasing anxiety. One of the more dramatic moments of the film occurs when he attempts to ‘remove’ Folke and the disruption that he represents. Folke is also observed, but less closely, by his superior Malmberg (Reine Brynolfsson). In one of the film’s many ironies he confides in Folke his fears that not all the observers are sufficiently dispassionate. When he discovers Folke’s lapse he sets in train the final actions and resolution of the film. Needless to say, as this is a feel-good movie, they are not too traumatic.

The film offers sharp and bright cinematography and a mise en scène that delights in the slightly anachronistic. Thus the observers caravans where they reside whilst studying the locals seem to have been designed by the originator of the Volkswagen Beetle. And strapped to them is a mysterious long wooden object, which turns out to be their observer chairs. They perch in these in the host’s kitchen, looking for all the world like a Wimbledon umpire.

Whilst he characters and comedies are delightful the plotting of the film is a little too neat and orderly. The script is at times a little predictable. Thus Isak’s ailing horse points towards the films resolution. And Grant’s attempt on Folke is signalled earlier in the film when he recounts the details of a recent gruesome accident. Despite the films tilt at institutions and bureaucracies there is only limited subversion. The most anarchic scenes of the film are when Malmberg’s own boss flies in and out, apparently heading for Finland and some Kaurismäki-type orgy. Otherwise the film is as orderly as the researches of the Home Research Institute itself.

The Festival audience enjoyed it, and the film stands at the number ten in the Top Twenty so far.

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