There’s something distinctly Scandinavian about Kitchen Stories. Ostensibly a comedy, it has a Northern European gloominess hanging over it, that kind of low-key fatalism that comes from too many long cold winters and centuries of Protestant strictures. Written and directed by Norwegian filmmaker Bent Hamer and set in the early ’50s, it’s a satire assailing the postwar belief in benign and quantifiable progress. It’s a belief system in which efficiency is an essential tool on the road to happiness, a concept here personified by the Swedish Home Research Institute and its studies of the kitchen habits of Swedish housewives.
Charting women’s movements over the years, its goal is to design a kitchen whose placement of appliances will make for less legwork for the busy homemaker. It’s a pre-feminist idea of improvement, but that’s part of the joke — that these forward-looking semi-scientists can’t see beyond the status quo.
But the Institute doesn’t limit itself to just studying housewives. Its latest project is to study the kitchen habits of Norwegian bachelors. Each bachelor will be assigned an observer from the Institute, who’s forbidden to interact with his subject. The observer sits in a tall chair and looks down on the subject as he goes about his business. Then, at the end of the day, he retreats to a small trailer which is parked next to the subject’s house.
That’s the theory, anyway, but much of the humor of the film’s first part derives from the way that one particular observer-subject pair try to act as though they’re not engaged in something extremely goofy. Folke has been assigned to study the farmer Isak. Both men have a similarly reticent temperament; Folke is a company man suited for his tedious job and Isak is a loner whose idea of a good time is to smoke his pipe and stare at the wall. Folke sits in his high chair like an overgrown baby waiting for Isak to feed him data but the farmer, who agreed to this thing only because he was promised a free horse, barely moves and begins to take his meals in an upstairs room. He even starts to observe the observer, through a hole in the kitchen ceiling.
The film’s mood of absurdist humor shifts a bit when Folke and Isak decide to abandon the game and relate to each other like two normal people but it’s to Hamer’s credit that the story’s deadpan tone barely wavers, even when sentiment intrudes. It may be essentially a one-joke movie but it’s a good joke, though very dry and not for all tastes.
In Swedish and Norwegian with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday and Saturday, March 19-20, at 7 and 9:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, Mar. 22, at 4 and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.