“Kitchen Stories” – A Deadpan Social Comedy
Tales of friendship set in rural small-towns are always a delight to watch. The odd dynamics and fascination that shapes male friendship are often conveyed through a sweet-natured humor. Norwegian humanist comedy “Kitchen Stories” (2004) is one such male bonding movie and if you look at it closely, it is also a satire of certain features of the culture where it transpires. Like the Scandinavian culinary classic “Babette’s Feast” (1987), this Scandinavian cinema is also set in a kitchen, although it doesn’t possess the former one’s rich metaphors.
The story is set in post World War II Norway (in the 1950’s), and in that time Sweden’s Home Research Institute is obsessed with studying the kitchen. The Swedish scientists want to know the kitchen routines of housewives, in order to help the families make the best use of their time in kitchen. When this project becomes a success, the social scientists decide to start a similar research on single men, living alone. Rural farm district ‘Landstad’, in Norway seems to be the perfect place, as this town has a large number of single men.
A group of 18 observers arrive at Landstad to determine how to design kitchens that best meets a single man’s needs. Each of them are provided a small caravan to live in and are commissioned to work throughout the day in their subject’s home and collect necessary data. Scruffy, old farmer Isak (Joachim Calmeyer) signs up for the experiment, but regrets the decision once he finds the observer, Mr. Folke (Tomas Norstrom) in his kitchen, perched up in a chair that resembles the lifeguard chair. Isak is very unhappy because he thought he would get a horse if he signed up for this absurd experiment.
However, the patient Folk sits in his chair and takes note on Isak’s every single move. At first they don’t speak (it is an important rule not to talk with the host), and the taciturn host does nothing much in the kitchen. He smoke pipes, baits mouse traps, eats chocolate, and sips coffee. There is rarely a movement to take note. Eventually, after series of small events, a subtle friendship develops between Folke and Isak, as both of them are loners and old bachelors. Folke always faces some mild repercussions for breaking the rule.
Director Bent Hamer (also the co-writer) nicely ridicules the engineered behavioral modes that often strive to achieve machine-like efficiency out of humans. Although the themes and pace may bore the young audiences, the movie possesses a whimsical quality, the one which delivers the subtle pleasures of friendship. There is something melancholic about these two men, but as the interactions goes on (even the banal) everything sort of lightens up. The movie is also about the impossibility and grimness of leading an isolated life.
Another important aspect of the movie that might be lost on majority of audience, outside Scandinavia, is the satirical viewpoint of Swede and Norse stereotypes. The Swedes are often shown as insensitive, uptight people with knowledge on technology and science, whereas the Norse people are portrayed as countrymen, interested in sharing folk tales. Politically too, the Swedes embraced left, while the Norse stayed right. Director Hamer evokes the stereotypes, only to break them later to show the evolving friendship between two opposite kind of individuals.
The emotionally involving “Kitchen Stories” might satisfy those who have a strong cinematic appetite. It reveals how our hearts and minds are gladdened by unexpected friendships.