In the early 1950s, the Swedish Home Research Institute dispatched a team of researchers to Norway to observe how middle-aged bachelors in a remote village behave in their kitchens. The bachelors’ movements were to be observed, tracked and noted in minute detail. This study followed an earlier one in which the patterns of Swedish housewives had undergone the same scrutiny. Apparently, the average Swedish housewife covered a distance equal to that between Stockholm and Congo in one year, just to prepare three meals a day.
The Swedes were curious as to how Norwegian bachelors fared. The team of researchers were required to park their cars and standard-issue miniscule trailers outside the subjects’ houses, install high chairs (like the ones for tennis court umpires) in the corner of their kitchens, observe and take notes. The researcher was to take off his shoes upon entering the house (for reasons never explained), and was not allowed to interact with the subject in any way. At night, they left to sleep in the trailers, and in the morning were back in the chairs.
Call me weird, but it strikes me that a job like this could possibly trigger insanity, murder or both. In fact, it’s the kind of setting horror film directors could have a field day with: a dismal Norwegian winter, two single men stuck inside the kitchen, silently eyeing each other. Now then, where’s that ax?
But no such violence happens in “Kitchen Stories,” a cool, droll tale that evolves around this bizarre job. The emotional darkness depicted by director Bent Hamer is subtle (a twitch in the facial muscles, a slight glint in the eye) and infrequent. Yet, it is there. Admittedly, the connotations are cozy: the slooow blossoming of friendship between two 50-ish men that reaches a point where they puff away at their pipes in enviably companionable silence. But underneath the veneer lurk such scary issues as constant surveillance, or the nannyish meddling of the socialist government (the research was part of a welfare project to test, and then improve, living conditions). As the researcher perches atop the chair like a mild vulture waiting for the subject to make his moves, the subject (who’s old and cantankerous) secretly drills a hole in the kitchen ceiling to spy on the researcher from upstairs.
When the study finally ends, after weeks of stealthily ignoring/watching each other, the researcher climbs down from the chair for coffee with the subject, neither of them seem too happy about the spontaneous interaction during office hours, so to speak. Despite the show of civility, there’s an undercurrent of suspicion. Folke (Tomas Norstrom), the researcher/bureaucrat, is worried stiff about breaking the rules and actually conversing with Isak (Joachim Calmeyer), the subject, who wastes no time in telling him that “You Swedes were neutral during the war, while we Norwegians suffered under the Nazis.”
Indeed, the war is still a fresh wound for Isak, whose friends had been detained and sent to camps. The Norwegians, Isak says, had had “enough of being surveyed and watched.” Folke cringes with guilt. He’s also disturbed when Isak tells him that he had volunteered for the research only because he had been promised a horse. This turned out to be a wooden Swedish souvenir, but Isak felt duty-bound to go through with the project. Isak’s own horse is old and dying, and he’s totally alone save for another solitary bachelor friend who drops in sometimes for coffee.
Folke realizes, though, that he’s in pretty much the same predicament. He has no family save an aunt who sends him an occasional care package, he’s a slave to the Swedish bureaucracy and, like Isak, usually goes for days without speaking to anyone. It’s the mutual recognition of each others’ loneliness, that bring about a fragile bonding.
The brilliance of “Kitchen Stories” is its sheer economy. There are only four people in the main cast and about 50 lines of dialogue. Most of the action takes place inside Isak’s spartan kitchen. No major emotional turmoil surfaces; in fact there’s almost no display of strong feeling. Folke and Isak seem to share a quiet, resigned sadness, and you can tell that both have been sad for so long it’s become their normal state. The whole film possesses an aesthetic of subtraction, and it’s as if Hamer is being tested to see how intricately he can craft a story using only the barest essentials. (Rule No. 1: Never have anyone say something if he can get away with not saying it). And he passes.
When you think of the overspill of tears, sweat and agony in the other Scandinavian school of filmmaking, Dogma, Hamer’s work may come off as just a tad too stoic for comfort. But that takes nothing away from the wonderful experience that is “Kitchen Stories.” With no show of affection (not even a handshake) and no mention of feeling, this is, in the most respectful sense of the term, a love story to remember.