Movie Reviews
10:29 am
Wed May 5, 2004

Kitchen Stories

The credibility of documentaries and scientists is on the table here.

Having just seen Kaurismaki's dryly-witty "Man Without a Past," I couldn't believe that director Bent Hamer's "Kitchen Stories" is actually drier and funnier. The Norse/Swedish co-production depicts 1950's Swedes studying bachelors in their kitchens to improve their lives. Swedish scientist Folke, in a high chair like some infantile god, observes Norwegian Isak under the restriction that he must not interact with Isak.

The humor comes from the stereotypical Swede as uptight and organized and the Norwegian as slow but solid. The silliness of the experiment itself is obvious and the restriction ludicrous because of course they will interact, in fact bond, given the loneliness of Norway's winter and the need for humans to be sociable. That the story turns on male bonding is a bonus, especially because neither country is considered a bastion of sociability. When Isak lets Folke listen to the radio on his teeth fillings, I figure the guys are in for some warm nights.

In another way, this film could be as good as it gets for analyzing the effect observers have on their subjects, be it laboratory or media. A question probably unanswerable even today is how much anyone changes under observation. In the case of the central characters in "Kitchen Stories," the change is considerable, but more so just because of another human being's presence in an otherwise lonely world. The credibility of documentaries and scientists is on the table here.

The minimal dialogue and occasional joke, spiced with subtle racial stereotyping, makes me think of not only Kaurismaki but also Beckett, whose waiting characters sometime talk nonsense, but most of the time profundity under the guise of simplicity. "Kitchen" is a slow but rewarding film that strips life of its pretensions to study more closely the tissue that binds humanity with communication.

Diplomat Dag Hammarskjold in his "Markings" caught the minimalism of this film: "Friendship needs no words--it is solitude delivered from the anguish of loneliness."