En attendant Slow Food on Film 2004, we went to see the entertaining Norwegian-Swedish film, Kitchen Stories, which was more “slow” than “food.
“In the 1950s, at the beginning of the economic boom, a convoy of researchers in caravans set out on a study tour of the culinary habits of a group of bachelors in a Norwegian village.”
From the eccentric outdatedness of these scant three lines, the sum-total of the official synopsis, you can pick up much of the fascination of Kitchen Stories. This little film by Norwegian Bent Hamer is one of the surprise successes of the 2003-04 cinema season, with word of mouth gradually bringing widespread acclaim and gratifying box office receipts.
The film’s retro atmosphere is visually absolutely entrancing. It begins with an old piece of film showing a housewife, acting as a guinea pig, cleaning a laboratory kitchen watched by two rows of observers in white shirt, black tie and Clark Kent-style glasses. In this rare Super8, the part following the movements of the Norwegian bachelors in the kitchen area is missing.
The next scene shows a line of wonderful identically enameled oval caravans passing through the Swedish-Norwegian border in Indian file under the impassive gaze of a customs officer dazed by solitary hours on watch, with silent, white expanses of snow all around. These are the ‘observers’, an indomitable band of positivist sociologists who have descended on a quiet village in Norway to study the habits of its single inhabitants and so develop a scientifically formulated, ultra-modern kitchen of perfect functionality.
The premise behind the action is wonderfully surreal and yet very simple. Two men of different nationality, culture and class are set into close contact with each other: Folke, the calm Swedish observer and Isaac, the crusty Norwegian observed. It’s the classic buddy-movie theme, with Folke and Isaac forced into a shared existence.
But, as you will have gathered, we are a long way from Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys, from quick-fire exchanges and explosions punctuated with coarse gags. In Kitchen Stories there isn’t much talking and there are no explosions. Indeed, most of the time there is complete silence. But it isn’t boring; it’s a comfortable, alluring silence that draws you into the situation. The comic pace, cooled and diluted in accordance with the Kaurismake Nordic school, is similar to that of another of this season’s gems, the German Shultze Gets the Blues by Michael Schorr.
Folke, the shirt-and-tied observer, is planted on a sort of high chair in Isaac’s kitchen and takes notes whenever Isaac moves, whenever he puts a square of chocolate into his mouth, whenever he has a cup of coffee with his neighbor. Isaac grunts in disgust every time his eye falls upon the ‘intruder’ and, to get his own back, eats surreptitiously upstairs, leaves Folke in the dark and even secretly spies on him. He simply can’t stomach this experiment which, in the name of science, strictly forbids any interaction between the two of them.
Just that, as time goes on, his well of resistance runs out and the two end up making friends. And gracefully but unrelentingly they win over our sympathies.
Despite the title, and despite his aged aunt’s herrings, which Folke devours in his enameled caravan, Isaac’s endless cups of coffee or the preparations for a Christmas lunch that will never take place, Kitchen Stories is not a food movie in the strict sense of the term. Here the kitchen is only the physical space in which the characters move. But the film is certainly worthy of the definition ‘slow film’ in so far as Bent Hamer avoids the turbulent shortcuts of blockbusters aimed at teenagers and takes all the time he wants to exploit the actors’ expressions and their comic timing. Hence, slowly and steadily, he eventually leads us by the hand into a silent, surreal place where we are won over by that most unselfish and unadulterated of human emotions: friendship.
Joachim Calmeyer, Tomas Nortrom, Bjorn Floberg, Reine Brynolfsson
Bent Hamer for BulBul Film Sweden AB
Year of release:
Stefano Sardo is artistic director of Slow Food on Film
Adapted by Ronnie Richards