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Review: Salmer fra kjøkkenet (Kitchen Stories)

Year of release: 2003
Director:
Writer(s): Bent Hamer
Cast: Tomas Norström, Joachim Calmeyer, Bjørn Floberg, Reine Brynolfsson

A common stereotype about us swedes is that we’re distant, cold and a little awkward. As far as stereotypes go, it’s actually pretty accurate and that part of our national identity has manifested itself in curious ways throughout our modern history. In the 1950’s, we were obsessed with applying our particular brand of common sense to almost all aspects of human life. Back in those days, they were convinced that if they analyzed something enough and drew enough diagrams, they would be able to delve to the heart of what makes a society happy and successful. In this particular case, they were able to determine the ideal kitchen layout by studying how women moved around in their daily kitchen routine.

Salmer fra kjøkkenet takes place in a town in Norway populated almost solely by single men, where the HFI (Hemmets Forskningsinstitut, The Home Research Institute) is going to further their understanding of domestic perfection by applying their kitchen layout research paradigm to single, norwegian men.  So they ship their observers off to this little hamlet to gather the required data. The researchers each have their own little trailer that they’re supposed to live in while observing their subjects, so not to impose too much on their privacy. The opening scenes of the film when the long line of HFI trailers parade into the small, rural town are almost a little surreal.

Malmberg, the reluctant swede in charge (played wonderfully by Reine Brynolfsson) is very distraught because he’s had to drive on the right side of the road (at that time, Sweden hadn’t yet switched from driving on the left side of the road) and tries to explain this to his norwegian counterpart, who just looks at him with a bemused expression. Which is one of the central premises of the film: the subtle cultural clash between the swedes and the norwegians. Neither quite understands the other and the swedes seems cluelessly ignorant of the mildly contemptful attitude the norwegians holds of them. Remember that this is the 1950’s; the memory of the second world war is still vivdly fresh, with an emphasis on the different roles Norway and Sweden played in it.

After an awkward introductionary meeting held by Malmberg, we make our acquaintance with the swedish observer Folke (Tomas Norström) and his very reluctant subject Isak (Joachim Calmeyer). When he is guiding Folke to where Isak lives, Isaks’ son Grant explains that his father regrets volunteering for the program and when Folke first arrives, Isak refuses to answer the door. Folke fruitlessly tries to persuade him to cooperate. Having come all this way he patiently waits for several days until finally, Isak leaves the door open indicating his reluctant surrender. Folke cautiously carts his ludicrous tennis judge chair into the corner of Isaks’ kitchen and climbs onto it.

What follows is a struggle of wills. Isak is a cantankerous old fart that seem determined to make life as difficult as possible for Folke. He’s not the likeable Hollywood kind of curmudgeon most of us are used to either. No, he’s a more authentic crank that seem to have very few endearing characteristics. Seemingly out of pure spite, Isak changes his routine completely when Folke is present. He doesn’t use his kitchen sink to rinse out his cups and he takes to cooking his meals in his bedroom out of sight of the perching swede.

Everything about Isak exudes loneliness. He lives in a secluded house in a remote town by himself, his only human contact it with his son Grant. Their relationship is so minimalistic that it’s actually amusing to watch them interact.

On the other hand, Folke also seems lonely. After all, he spends his days living in a trailer in the norwegian countryside. He has no family aside from an elderly aunt and he seems to cling to his work for meaning, telling himself that it will better the lives of a great many people.

The story devleops in pace with the relationship between these two lonely men. While the story takes a somewhat predictable turn, it does so in a very honest way. There’s no sense of forced sentimentality to the burgeoning friendship between Folke and Isak.

It takes a great deal to make a bitter old cynic like me to admit to enjoying watching two lonely individuals connect in such a touching and heartfelt way. I think it is because the film takes such a unpretentious approach to the subject. It doesn’t go out of its way to pander to established clichés. Even more impressive is the fact that when it does take the predictable path, it does so in a fresh and engaging way.

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