Kitchen Stories Movie Review:

Kitchen Stories is a quirky Norse/Swedish co-production that functions equally effectively as a critique of common sociological methods of observation, a male bonding movie, and a satire of certain aspects of the countries where it transpires.

The film, which takes place during the 1950s, introduces a Swedish scientist, Folke (Tomas Norström), who travels to Norway to observe how a volunteer, Isak (Joachim Calmeyer), functions in his kitchen.

It is Folke’s job to map Isak’s every movement in the kitchen so the results can be used to determine how to engineer a kitchen to best meet a single man’s needs. (Similar studies really took place in Sweden and the United States during the 1950s, albeit with married women.)

Before beginning his work, Folke is given strict instructions not to interact with Isak. He is to sit in a high chair (one that looks a little like a lifeguard’s perch) in a corner of the kitchen and watch.

The theory is that Isak will go about his business as usual, oblivious to Folke’s presence. The reality is that the presence of an observer - even a silent one - influences Isak’s every action.

This raises questions about how legitimate any study can be that relies upon supposedly impartial observation.

Not only is it impossible for a human observer to be objective about a subject, but the subject will almost always act differently. (One has to wonder about the “honesty” of people who set up webcams in their houses with the objective of showing how they live to anyone who discovers the URL.

Do they really go about their business as usual, or do they “perform” for their audience? And, after a camera has been around for a long time, is it possible that what we’re seeing is no longer influenced by an exhibitionist, self-conscious awareness of being watched?)

As one might readily anticipate from a movie of this sort, Folke and Isak, both of whom are loners, develop a friendship. It begins with a few innocuous questions and ends with Folke buying Isak a birthday cake and Isak letting Folke listen to the chatter of radio station broadcasts that can be heard coming through the silver fillings in his mouth.

There are other characters in the movie, but they fill minor roles, adding a little color. For the most part, director Bent Hamer is interested in Folke and Isak.

The nature of their interaction will be familiar to those who have seen any of the countless male bonding pictures available in video stores, although the acting and writing are of a higher caliber than that which one typically discovers in Hollywood fare.

One aspect of the film which will likely be lost to North American viewers is Hamer’s tongue-in-cheek view of Swedish and Norse stereotypes, and the way he satirizes the mutual antagonism between the countries.

The Swedes are portrayed as cold, uptight individuals who rely on science and technology, while the Norse are depicted as somewhat backward, folksy people.

One element that typifies their differences is the side of the road on which they drive - during the ‘50s, the Norse stayed to the right, while the Swedes took the left (scientifically proven, a character asserts, to be the safer side).

I’m tempted to describe Kitchen Stories as an inconsequential film, but that sounds a little too like a pejorative.

Rather, let me say that it’s a simple story told well, with plenty of lighthearted moments and kernels of thought-provoking material, but little to really excite the cinematic appetite.

In some ways, the central relationship between Folke and Isak, despite being the most emotionally satisfying aspect of the film, is the least interesting.

Kitchen Stories is not the kind of motion picture that will receive widespread distribution, nor will it draw significant crowds. But most who see it will come away with a positive impression.

Rating: *** out of ****