Bent Hamer's comedy “Kitchen Stories,” a droll film-festival favorite that premieres this weekend in the Finger Lakes at the Smith Opera House, pits the scientific idealism of a team of Swedish home efficiency experts against the unwashed entropy of their subjects, single men in late 1940s Norway.
Before it settles down into a two-man character study, “Kitchen Stories” offers a succession of quietly uproarious sight gags, most of which poke fun at the scientists' zeal for orderliness. In an early scene, the streamlined caravans of the investigators for Sweden's Home Research Institute cross the lonely border into Norway, only to be thrown into chaos by the switch to right-hand driving. The disorientation is only beginning.
“We have managed to rationalize the kitchen,” crows team leader Malmberg (Reine Brynolfsson), brandishing studies of Swedish housewives that reduce their movements in the kitchen to spirograph art. In any event, his men fan out across the snowbound town of Landstad, each assigned to study an aging, unmarried male inhabitant. The scientists' observation posts are giant versions of a baby's high chair, watchtowers from which they can scan the entire kitchen. Under no circumstances are they to talk to their hosts.
Malmberg gripes about one of his team who has started drinking through the nights with his subject, but he has no idea that the man he's griping to, Folke (Tomas Nordstrom), has already contaminated his own study with friendship.
Folke, a timid egghead, has been assigned to observe Isak (Joachim Calmeyer), a cranky, reclusive farmer who has had second thoughts about the project. Early scenes between the two are beauties of silent gamesmanship that recall the classic comedy of Jacques Tati: Folke, in his chair, watches Isak setting mousetraps and can't stifle the delicate cough that brings a trap down on the old man's fingers. Isak's response is to drill a hole in his bedroom floor and observe the observer.
The ice thaws eventually, and “Kitchen Stories” drifts into an easy, unforced sentimentality that stresses the frailty of human connections. The true nature of the experiment is loneliness and our responses to same, whether that's Isak's friend Grant (Bjorn Floberg) hauling Folke's camper onto the train tracks in a fit of jealousy or Isak playing the saw late at night, filling the still air with unearthly metal moans.
Writer-director Bent Hamer, whose previous film was another festival favorite, “Eggs,” wields a deft hand with delicate gestures and detail. He has also, in an effort to remove romance from the picture, cast his movie solely with men, although there is sort of a triangle at work: Grant (Bjorn), a former inmate at a concentration camp, comes to resent Folke's growing closeness to Isak, embodying as he does not just the painfulness of having one's loneliness intruded on, but the after-effects of Sweden's Swiss-like role in World War II.
As Hamer makes so plain, both in his characters' relationships and their world at large, there is no such thing as neutrality.
The Smith Opera House screens “Kitchen Stories” at 7 p.m. July 29 and at 2 p.m. August 1 and at 7.p.m. August 2 and 3. In Norwegian and Swedish with English subtitles, this film has a running time of 91 minutes. It is unrated but should be considered similar to a PG rating. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for students and seniors. All seats on Thursday are $3 and all seats on Tuesday are $2. Call 315-781-5483 or toll-free 866-355-5483 for details or to order tickets.
The Smith Opera House is located at 82 Seneca Street in Geneva. The Smith is supported, in part, with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, the City of Geneva, the Town of Geneva and by contributions from individual supporters.