words William Wiles
A Swedish attempt to rationalise the domestic routines of single men makes for a quirky, endearing treat of a film from director Bent Hamer.
“Thanks to us, the Swedish housewife no longer needs to walk to the Congo every year. Northern Italy will do.” This line, spoken in the opening scenes of Bent Hamer’s film Kitchen Stories (Salmer Fra Kjøkkenet), explains the rationale behind a remarkable research project undertaken in 1950s Sweden to improve kitchen design – the trek to central Africa was simply the distance travelled between sink, stove and surface in a year’s kitchen work before the Scandinavian efficiency experts attacked it with slide-rules and schematics.
Flushed with its success at rationalising the lives of housewives, and taking the film into its fictional part, the team decides that the same must now be done for single men, and without further ado a convoy of khaki caravans piles into Norway in a search for observation victims. “Host” subject Isak, a reclusive Norwegian farmer, and “guest” researcher Folke, a po-faced bureaucrat, are teamed together and – after being denied entry for a couple of days – Folke sets up his high chair in the corner of the kitchen, gets out his clipboard and pencil, and starts to observe and measure. It rapidly becomes apparent that the domestic routines of bachelors are not going to prove as tractable as those of housewives, and that the project is doomed.
Much male communication is non-verbal, and it is immediately striking that Hamer’s film manages to deliver a great many good laughs and a good deal of full-fat character insight with very little dialogue. The film’s premise is that the “guests” must not interact with their “hosts” in any way, but this is of course impossible – the high chair and the empiricist atop it are as obvious as a giraffe on the table. Although it is Linnaeus – the Swede who invented the system for the naming and classification of all living things – who is name-checked, it might as well have been Heisenberg for his dictum that to observe is to influence. In human life, the role of “neutral observer” is a contradiction in terms – as Isak points out, Sweden’s non-combatant “observer” status in the Second World War wasn’t neutral for its Norwegian neighbours.
Under Folke’s gaze, aspects of Isak’s home life that are only as eccentric as those of the next bachelor seem to be almost certifiably insane; but is it the bachelor who is mad, or the researcher for wanting to watch and refine this private realm? For all the Swedes’ noble aspirations, a more ergonomic and hygienic dish-rack is not going to change the fact that the farmer prefers to cook in his bedroom. And, inevitably, interaction begins, first with Isak altering his behaviour out of indignation at the invasion of his privacy – eating in the dark, for instance – then, tentatively, with shared coffee and tobacco, and, ultimately, with friendship. Meanwhile, we learn that another researcher has started drinking with his host and that the director of the project has gone AWOL. Anarchy creeps in. The film culminates in an enormously satisfying inversion of roles.
Stylistically, in its snowbound setting, gentle humour and eccentric characters, Kitchen Stories invites comparison with the Coen brothers’ Fargo and Dogme cinema, but there is also more than a hint at the gentler end of British film comedies of the 1950s; not knockabout Ealing, more Peter Sellers in introspective mood. Its message, such as it is, is a conservative one, poking fun at the claims of design and the time-and-motion study and questioning their ability to improve lives that, despite their clear eccentricity and inefficiency, don’t need improvement. In one of the best stretches of dialogue, Isak voices this unease perfectly: “I feel sorry for people with nuclear power.”
Folke: “But surely electricity is electricity.”
Isak: “You can’t simplify things like that.”