To judge from two of its recent films, Norway is a country with a higher-than-average number of dysfunctional single men. Earlier this year, British cinema-goers were treated to Elling, a charmingly quirky comedy about two amiable misfits who, having spent most of their lives in care, are reintroduced into the community. Now, fresh from a successful showing at the London Film Festival, comes Bent Hamer's Kitchen Stories, a film predicated on the notion that, if studying the domestic routines of confirmed bachelors is your game, then there is no better country in which to do it than Norway.
The film is set in the 1950s. A Swedish scientific organisation called the Home Research Institute has been conducting time and motion studies into the ergonomics of kitchens. Having exhaustively mapped the daily routine of the Swedish housewife, it has now decided to turn its attention to the Norwegian single male. A team of researchers has duly been dispatched to the remote region of Landstad, where a handful of bachelors have agreed to have their daily routines scrutinised.
This set-up is not quite as fanciful as it sounds. The use of mass observation techniques to rationalise domestic chores was common in the 1950s, although most studies stopped short of setting up observation posts in the houses of single men. By expanding the scope of the inquiry, Hamer ideally places himself in a position to reveal some of the contradictions and absurdities inherent in such experiments.
The film follows the progress of one of the researchers, Folke (Tomas Norstrom), who is assigned to the home of Isak (Joachim Calmeyer), a taciturn, obstrep- erous farmer who initially refuses to co-operate. For several days, Folke isn't allowed into his kitchen. When he finally gains access, his efforts to observe his subject meet with stiff resistance. From the vantage point of the high chair he installs in Isak's kitchen, Folke looks down on a mostly empty room, as Isak takes to cooking his meals in his bedroom upstairs, from where he cunningly conducts an "observation" of his own through a peephole in the ceiling. When Isak does enter the kitchen, it is usually at night, and in darkness, forcing Folke to illuminate the room by donning a miner's hat.
As has long been recognised, the problem with mass observation experiments is that they are subject to a variation of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which states that the behaviour of any observed phenomenon is changed by the fact of its being observed. The scientists in Kitchen Stories attempt to overcome this difficulty by enforcing a strict separation between subject and observer. The researchers are required to live in caravans outside the homes of their subjects, and talking (or any other form of communication) is strictly prohibited.
However, as quickly becomes apparent, such precautions cannot prevent the observers from impacting upon the routines of their subjects. The early scenes in Isak's kitchen reveal just how spurious the guise of rationality is. As Isak baits mousetraps with chunks of cheese, he is distracted by Folke's coughing, and traps one of his fingers. Soon afterwards, when Isak momentarily absents himself, Folke sneakily borrows his salt shaker, only to return it to the wrong position. When Isak re-enters the kitchen, he circles about trying to find the errant shaker, placing Folke in the position of having to record movements that have only come about as a consequence of his intervention.
Besides showing objectivity to be an impossible goal, the film suggests that there is something unnatural about the idea of social observation. Folke and Isak are both inadequates who have long been starved of human contact. The balding, uptight Folke lives with his aunt in southern Sweden, while Isak, whose only real friend is his neighbour, is better at relating to animals than humans. In other words, the overwhelming impulse is for the two men to befriend each other. It takes only a single gesture - Folke offering Isak tobacco - for the veneer of impartiality to crumble, and they are soon chatting like old friends.
At this point, the film turns into a bit of a feel-good story about the possibility of even the loneliest of lives being redeemed by friendship. While this results in a more conventional film than was promised, Hamer maintains just enough quirkiness for it not to matter greatly.There are dark touches - such as the attempt by Isak's jealous neighbour to do away with Folke - and the increasing dismay of the experiment's co-ordinator, Sixten Malmberg (Reine Brynolfsson), is wonderfully evoked. Broader themes, such as the ambivalence of many Norwegians towards their overbearing Swedish neighbours, are also introduced. Talking about the impossibility of his behaviour not being affected by Folke's presence, Isak observes: "But you Swedes don't understand . . . You were neutral observers during the war, too." In other words, there is no such thing as genuine neutrality. Trying to remain impartial, whether in science or in war, always has consequences.
Kitchen Stories will be showing at selected cinemas from 2 January