Wandering down the aisles at IKEA, amid a sea of efficiently
functional and monochromatic desks and chairs, a question comes to
mind: Do Swedes know how to have fun?
Bent Hamer’s “Kitchen Stories” pokes fun at that same stoicism
that characterizes the clean lines of the Swedes’ utilitarian
furniture, and though the main Swedish character is somewhat
square, he does — with the help of a grumpy Norwegian —
learn to loosen up and have some fun.
The film’s setup is a ridiculous plan of utopian socialist
design, a study about the kitchen habits of single males in order
to construct the most economical bachelor kitchen. An observer,
towering on a highchair over the resident, must take note of every
move made while resisting any urges to engage in conversation or
establishing any sort of familiarity. The rigidity of this study is
never so hilariously or eloquently expressed as in the beginning,
when a line of identical cars, all pulling identical trailers,
glides along the white countryside to a steady bass line.
But the heart of “Kitchen Stories” lies in the
growing friendship between Folke, the ultra-serious, diligent
observer, and his reluctant subject Isak. The first two thirds of
the film contain long stretches without dialogue and revolve around
moments of tense awkwardness and sight-gags. The absurdity of Folke
sitting in a wooden high chair never loses its ability to elicit a
chuckle, and the way Isak devours his chocolate, provoking Folke
with a menacing glare, never gets old.
Despite Folke’s uncompromising commitment to his job and Isak’s
unyielding determination to make Folke’s job as miserable as
possible, the two break down and begin communicating. Soon they are
sharing food, baking birthday cakes for each other and drinking
together — driving home the point that a life can’t be
observed without a longing to join in.
“Kitchen Stories” doesn’t let its people-need-people
message push it into the weepy friendship melodrama category, which
many well-marketed foreign films seem to fit. That’s what makes
“Kitchen Stories” so effective — its restraint.
The laughs are never forced but gently induced, the Swedish culture
never brutally criticized but lightly teased.
Ironically, Hamer displays the notions of utility that he is
making fun of — the stark white landscapes, the dully
colored, sparse set and the minimal use of dialogue. Yet he still
manages to create an entertaining film that shows Swedes indeed
know how to have fun.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars