‘Kitchen Stories’ cooks up a slow but humorous story

    Deliciously droll and aesthetically beautiful, Bent Hamer’s “Kitchen Stories” is a quiet comedy about the kitchen behaviors of single men. Originally making its premiere in January 2003 at the Tromso International Film Festival in Norway, “Kitchen Stories” has earned countless awards throughout the year and eventually became the Norwegian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2003 Academy Awards. Taking place in Norway after World War II, the narrative spins around home science and the Sweden Home Research Institute’s work in studying women’s kitchen behaviors so that the average household kitchen can be redesigned in a more efficient manner, reducing the average distance a woman walks in her kitchen-related duties.

    Hamer creates a tale with a twist on the research; the researchers in the film are sent out in their egg-shaped, pea-green trailers to the homes of single men in the rural farming district of Landstad, Norway. Cleverly utilizing an all-male cast, the film eliminates the possibility of gender and sexual dimensional themes. Instead, the focus is on men and their relationships to each other, particularly the relationship between one observer, Folke, and his subject, Isak. The observers working with the Sweden Home Research Institute have strict guidelines to follow in their observations of kitchen behavior, the main rule being that there would be no communication between observer and subject so that the subject would not be influenced in his daily “kitchen habits.” Living outside the subject’s house, the observers sat in a custom-made observation chair that sat high above the floor of the kitchen as they took notes on their observations. The observers were to come and go as they please, without disruption in the subject’s life.

    Isak, a brooding solitary farmer who participated in order to receive a free horse, resents having signed up for the experiment, and decides to make it excessively difficult for Folke. He spends very little time in the kitchen, and leaves the light off as he eats. Isak also constructs a makeshift stove in his room above the kitchen so that he can go about his business without being observed, and then turns the project around when he drills a hole in the floor of the second story right above where Folke sits in his wooden throne and spies on Folke as he makes his notes. As the observer becomes the observed, the two men forge a friendship as the story boils down to the fact that rather than aloof and brooding, the two men are lonely.

    Set in the gorgeous winter landscape of Norway, the film looks like a set of postcards. The composition of the screen is still and beautiful, as the camera is rarely involved in the movement of the set. Instead, characters move throughout the set as the camera sits at mid-range or long-range, as if watching a play. The careful articulation of the story is slow, but contributes to the atmosphere and art of the narrative. There is very little dialogue, and the silence married with the still quality of camera shots may make it difficult for some to stay awake through the film. Although not visually stimulating, the understated beauty of the cinematography is refreshing when you need a break from the over-produced, over-stimulating blockbusters out today.

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