Slight but sardonic, Norwegian director Bent Hamer’s deadpan Kitchen Stories makes a taciturn comedy of nothingness out of color-coordinated ’50s coziness and Scandinavian social planning.
The Swedish Home Research Institute decides to study and quantify the way that rural Norwegian bachelors move around their kitchen, dispatching a group of observers to take notes. The premise is more Keaton than Chaplinesque. The profoundly uncomfortable Folke perches like a tennis umpire on a high chair observing Isak, an eccentric old farmer who keeps a room full of pepper and plays the saw. Strangely, Isak declines to cook in the kitchen; he enigmatically shuffles, then crawls around upstairs to spy on lonely Folke (who, by night, retreats to his cold little standard-issue trailer). There’s not much drama here, although the study is jeopardized by fraternization, as when Folke and Isak bond over the old man’s birthday. The supervisor walks in on the morning-after mess to find the boundaries now totally blurred—not to mention strange doodles on Folke’s forms.
Hamer is a restrained, visually oriented comic director—he makes the most out of a procession of egg-shaped trailers. Kitchen Stories is too dry to be cute but unavoidably twee in playing with the idea of the burgeoning affection and symbiotic surveillance between observer and observee. Social satire is implicit: The Home Research Institute is engaged in a grand, vaguely socialist, perhaps Taylorist exercise in domestic efficiency. The relationship between godlike researcher and humble subject allows for a certain amount of neighborhood payback, like when Isak notes that “you [Swedes] were only neutral observers during the war, right?”