October 7, 2004

Cornell Cinema

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Bent Hamer”s Kitchen Stories is an exercise in observation both explicitly and metaphorically. Its subject manner, however, is somewhat of a peculiarity. In post-war Europe, the Swedish Home Research Institute decides to make a scientific study out of the daily habits of housewives in the kitchen to facilitate the design of more efficient kitchens. The success of the study motivates the Institute to expand on its ambitions of kitchen design. Thus, a team of observers is sent into Norway to observe the domestic habits of single men. Kitchen Stories traces the experience of Folke Nilsson (Tomas Norstrom), a Swedish observer and Isak Bjornsson (Joachim Calmeyer), his Norwegian subject.

The cynical moviegoer will probably at this point declare triumph over the premise, decrying the film as some sort of shadowy Ikea conspiracy under the guise of a buddy movie. Not so, my friends, because the Institute is above all things, extremely scientific, and like any legitimate organization, sets up constraining ground rules for the study. Observers must never speak to their subjects and, when not sleeping in their trailers at night, must always remain stationed atop a high chair in their subjects” kitchens in case of domestic activity. We can thank the Institute”s rigid commitment to science for the first part of the movie, which manages to manipulates the hindrance that silence provides into an actual advantage. Situational comedy results from the silent antics of Isak and Folke, both annoyed men who would prefer the other to be absent. As Isak deliberately refuses to completely turn off the faucet in the kitchen, Folke”s aggravation seems to multiply with every loud drop of water in the sink.

A transition comes soon enough because circumstances eventually cause the two men to interact. Shifting the sterile mood of the film towards something warmer, the emerging friendship between Folke and Isak is a testament to the need for emotion and interaction in all walks of life. That a place in the home such as the kitchen could spawn such a mechanical experiment in behavior is remedied by the eventual results of the study.

The Institute”s seemingly futile study in domestic habits does actually help improve the lives of its subjects, but not in the way that it originally intended. Isak and Folke are both lonely men, the former is a bachelor who lives by himself in the country, while the latter has as his only relation, an old aunt. Each man”s situation in life is ironically enough reflected in his culinary habits. Isak cooks in his bedroom while Folke, sequestered in his trailer, ravenously stuffs himself full of Swedish food that his aunt has shipped to the point where he vomits. They are both irresponsible where healthy eating habits are concerned. Near the end of the film, however, both men celebrate Isak”s birthday with layer cake and bourbon in the kitchen where their friendship begun.

Hamer directs his film with artistic continuity. The story comes full circle with the use of familiar imagery and situations, thus providing Kitchen Stories with the feel of a completed arc. Choosing winter in the country as the setting of the movie, Hamer constructs a frame to Kitchen Stories that parallels the emotionally detached experiment of its first conception. The interesting part, however, is witnessing how Hamer skillfully minimizes dialogue to concentrate on nonverbal interaction, in effect demonstrating how communication exceeds the limits of language.

A tale of how two strangers unintentionally save each other, Kitchen Stories promotes understanding through experience rather than observation. Despite extensive scientific evidence from the Institute to the contrary, perhaps the most efficient kitchen is one that hosts the social interaction of friends.

Archived article by Tracy Zhang