Can a film about a sociologist's efforts to observe the movements of an aging farmer in his kitchen be described as a love story? Yet, by the end of the 2003 Norwegian film Kitchen Stories, that is just about the only explanation that makes sense of what we have watched for an hour and thirty-five minutes.
Beginning in 1944, a study was conducted by a group of Swedish sociologists that sought to track the movements of housewives in their kitchens so that future homes could be designed in such a way that their movements, puttering around the kitchen, could be minimized. (And if such a study sounds ridiculous, try to imagine what Google and Facebook are doing with all the data they're collecting about your online likes and dislikes, dear reader.)
Through an agreement with Norway (according to Bent Hamer's fictional screenplay), the sociologists proposed to extend their study to the kitchen traffic of ordinary Norwegian men. The film opens by informing us that there are subtle but significant differences between Norway and Sweden, as we watch a small convoy of identical cars with identical tiny trailers hitched to them advance toward us on the left side of the road. A sign in three languages (one of them is English) tells them that upon crossing the frontier they must drive on the right.
One of the field researchers, Folke, follows a tractor driven by a farmer named Grant to the house of Isak, who has agreed to take part in the study. But Isak won't answer the door. Folke waits. Hours pass. Folke's boss Malmberg climbs a ladder to reach an upper window and knocks. The next day they bring the local doctor to reason with him. Another day elapses with no sign of Isak. Folke climbs the ladder alone to the upstairs window. Isak opens the blind and is confronted with Folke's face outside. Isak draws the blind and Folke climbs down. He relaxes inside his trailer, listening to music on the radio. I should mention that it's the dead of winter and everything is covered in snow. In the morning Folke notices Isak emerge from the barn (how did he get there?) and he leaves the door of the house open for Folke. These scenes of inaction introduce us to what will be the pace for the rest of the film, a pace like one might expect the life of a bachelor farmer to be --- slow. It isn't often that a film asks us (and so soon after it has begun) not to expect any of the things that most films promise (but so rarely deliver): thrills, sex, and violence. The late E. L. Doctorow, who regarded film as "the enemy" of writing, once said that films are usually about faces or explosions. Kitchen Stories is about faces.
Folke erects a tall chair, like the ones used by tennis judges, in a corner of Isak's spartan kitchen, and takes up his post. We've not heard them speak a word to each other. Days pass with Folke watching and tracing Isak's kitchen putterings on a diagram of his kitchen. Whenever Isak leaves the kitchen he turns off the light. Days go by. Overnight, Isak has cut a hole in the kitchen ceiling above Folke's chair and he quietly spies on him. Folke presents his initial "findings" to his boss and asks for a different "host." His request is denied.
Because it's a scientific study, Folke is not supposed to interfere with his subject. Until one morning when he gives Isak some tobacco to fill his pipe. Isak follows by pouring Folke a cup of coffee, and Folke climbs down to drink it. He speaks his first word, "thanks," to Isak. The ice broken, they begin to have conversations in the kitchen. Late one evening, Isak finds Folke asleep in his chair and he covers him with a coat. Folke gives Isak some of the provisions he gets in the mail from his aunt, like canned herring (Isak eats nothing but porridge). Folke's boss arrives to inform him that one of the researchers and his host have become drinking buddies.
There is nowhere a suggestion of sexual interest between the men, even when Folke watches Isak bathe, and, in a beautiful moment, Isak claims that the fillings in his teeth allow him to receive distant radio signals and puts his open mouth next to Folke's wondering ear. But the closeness they develop is something more than merely friendly. It's a fondness, an affection, brought on by their unacknowledged loneliness (no surprise - Folke is also a bachelor) and their need for companionship. (It should be noted that, except for a woman accompanying the eccentric head of the firm, there are no other women in the film.)
But when Folke throws (if that is the word) Isak a birthday party and they get drunk together, Grant, an old friend of Isak, who has been spying on them and is, perhaps, jealous of their closeness, reports Folke to his boss for such brazen fraternization. In a jealous rage, Grant takes his tractor and tows Folke's trailer, with Folke asleep inside, to a railroad crossing and leaves it on the tracks. Isak sees him and gets out his ancient horse to quietly return the trailer. Throughout the scene, Folke never wakes.
But Isak's horse is dying. And Malmberg, Folke's boss, orders that everyone pack up their equipment - the project is cancelled. When Folke tells him he resigns, that he's staying, Malmberg reminds him of his "contractural obligations." And so we see the little convoy of cars and trailers returning to the border - except this time, Folke pulls off the road right before the checkpoint and unhitches his trailer and tells Malmberg he quits. Malmberg is left struggling to hitch the trailer behind his own car as the border guard watches him.
But Folke returns to Isak's house at night in time to see his horse being loaded into a truck and an ambulance in front of the house. Grant approaches Folke with news he can't bring himself to speak. Despite this apparent end to the story, the film gives us one last scene that leaves us with an airy and sweet ambiguity. We see Isak's house, but everything around it is green. Inside, Folke is alone but the telephone rings three times - just as it had when Grant let Isak know he was coming over for a haircut - and he smiles broadly. On the table is a pipe and tobacco and two coffee cups.
Is the film a sendup of the so-called detachment of sociologists? It certainly gives Swedes a gentle ribbing. By the end we've been introduced to a group of human beings who discover a little of their own humanity. Very gently and without much of a fuss, Bent Hamer evokes the loneliness of life in a tiny community where winter lasts half the year.
The acting from a cast heretofore unknown to me (except for the splendid Sverre Anker Ousdal as the head of the firm sponsoring the study) is flawless. Joachim Calmeyer plays - inhabits - Isak, a man who finds himself rather defenseless against advancing age. And Tomas Norstrom gives us Folke, a dedicated scientist at first who gently bends the rules set for him with interjections of gentleness. How he goes about winning the trust and friendship of Isak - seemingly without even trying - is quietly beautiful. But it is the time and especially the place that are brought to breathing life by Hamer and his cameraman, Philip Ogaard. The film's luminous imagery matches the beauty of its illuminated lives.
The film suggests immeasurably more than it shows us. For instance, Isak's life through the years, alone in his farmhouse, reminded me of Frost's "An Old Man's Winter Night":
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon, such as she was,
So late-arising, to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man - one man - can't keep a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It's thus he does it of a winter night.