Cinema Signal:

The Off-Hollywood Film Guide:
The Definitive Guide to Independent and Foreign Films on Video and DVD
by Tom Weiner

. "Kitchen Stories"

This uniquely eccentric comedy about a spurious scientific study of men's kitchen behavior has little to say about that but leaves an indelible impression about social affinity and relationships. Set in the wintry climes of Norway, it slyly pokes fun at how wrong-headed researchers can become when they go off on a theoretical tangent.

It's based on a project by the Home Research Institute in Sweden to map and analyze the presupposed inefficiency of male bachelors in their kitchens, so that it might be compared to the findings of a previous study on women. The misguided notion behind it was the belief that they could shape society with reason and logic. To do so, they send out a team of observers to set up stations in the kitchens of volunteers in order to prove their theory.

Izak (Joachim Calmeyer) volunteered because he thought the horse promised to him as recompense for his discomforts would be a real one. Only the greatness of his need, because the one he has is dying, would make him amenable to the outlandish idea of having a perfect stranger sit and watch him as he prepares meals.

The disappointment of finding a toy horse outside his front door doesn't exactly inspire him to live up to the contract he signed and, for days, he refuses to acknowledge the man outside who wants to come in and do the observing. Add to that the impression that he's a generally grumpy individualist who doesn't suffer fools gladly.

But, researcher Folke Nillson (Tomas Norstrom) is not a man to give up easily. His very job requires persistence and a scientist's cool objectivity. Finally, after days of waiting and cajoling, the door opens. He quickly sets up his observation chair, a high one like that of a tennis umpire's, in a corner of the kitchen, with his room maps and observation forms at the ready.

The rules, however, are strict: no personal interraction with the subject. No becoming engaged in conversation, nor any reliance upon his host for anything. The researcher must attend to his needs completely independently. For this purpose, his small oval trailer is parked outside the farmhouse where he eats and sleeps.

But such objective distance within the confines of one room can't last forever, and the study we actually witness is in how long it takes to have the rules compromised until they collapse and break down by the inevitable need of people to communicate. The wry humor behind it is in the specific steps in the evolution of social attraction. Director Bent Hamer working from a script he wrote with Jorgen Bergmark, establishes satiric pleasure in bringing reluctant subject and determined observer from awkward strangers to a bond of mutual respect. It's a process of considerable restraint, making much of gravitation toward natural impulses.

Both actors are adept at the blank expression and deadpan reactions; both are leading exponents of their country's talent. Calmeyer, the hermetical bachelor subject, is one of Norway's most acclaimed actors with a classic as well as a TV background. Bjorn Floberg plays the zealous project overseer (the "bad guy" of the piece) with officious correctness and the right dedication. Malmberg (Reine Brynolfsson), Izak's neighbor, plays the most outwardly emotional part as the jealous buddy being supplanted by the new guy in his pal's affections.

This sweet, understated comedy-drama, based on taking a laugh at the commercially motivated scientific overkill and Swedish mentality during the 1950s, is Norway's official entry for the motion picture academy's Best Foreign Language Film award of 2003. But, however it turns out there, it's already a winner, having been picked up for theatrical release in the U.S., not exactly a slam dunk for most foreign language entrants.

If you liked the expresionless humor of "Man Without a Past", it's right up your funny bone.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Joachim Calmeyer and Tomas Norstrom as Izak and Folke
Guinea pig and observer in a misguided behavioral study

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