Kitchen Stories (2003)
2.00:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
MGM Home Entertainment, $14.95

In 1944, the Home Research Institute, or HFI, was established in Sweden to observe the kitchen habits of housewives in an effort to improve home-economics functionality. (Sounds like the birth of Ikea.) The institute produced such smashing results that a new study was commissioned six years later. This time, the subjects are single Norwegian men who will be observed in their own native kitchen environments. This wholly fictional premise is the setup for the quirky comedy Kitchen Stories (Salmer fra kjøkkenet), Norway’s official entry for the 2003 Academy Awards and a selection at both the Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals.

HFI observer Folke Nilsson (Tomas Nörstram) has drawn a tough assignment: to keep a close eye on the curmudgeonly Isak Bjornsson (Joachim Calmeyer), who signed up for the study only because he was promised a Døla horse, which he thought could replace his ailing workhorse. In fact, he has received a horse — in the form of a 10"-tall Swedish Dala figurine.

The subtle differences between the Swedish and Norwegian languages comprise just one of several layers of tension explored by the film. Swedes don’t like that Norwegians drive on the wrong side of the road. Norwegians still have an underlying resentment toward Swedes for being “neutral observers” during World War II while Norway was invaded. Norwegians look upon Swedish-brand tobacco with disdain. And so on.

After freezing Folke out of his house for several days, Isak begrudgingly allows him to begin the observation. Isak tries all sorts of ruses to throw off Folke, who sits perched on a lifeguard-like chair in the kitchen corner. The old man cooks only in his bedroom and performs kitchen activities in the dark, and he even drills a tiny hole in the floor above to spy on Folke. The HFI’s cardinal rule forbids the observer from interacting or communicating with the host, but when Folke violates this edict by offering Isak tobacco for his pipe, the frigid barrier between the two begins to thaw.

What Kitchen Stories proves is that to truly understand someone, observation alone won’t suffice; communication is a must. After Folke and Isak become good friends, this point is underscored in a melancholy shot of a third character, Grant (Bjørn Floberg), whose actions parallel the film’s message. Grant considers himself Isak’s one true friend, dropping by daily to share a quick cup of coffee and minimal, if any, conversation. But he, too, has become an observer, watching through the window as Isak warms up to Folke. After visiting for some one-sided dialogue, during which Isak merely mouths his pipe, Grant peers into the kitchen window to find Isak vibrantly chatting and laughing — something that never happens in his presence — with an unseen person. That person is Folke, of course, and the shot is framed perfectly so that Folke is obscured from view by the curtain on the right side of the window. The visual metaphor created by this framing is simple but powerful: Grant has not interacted with Folke and knows nothing about him, nor does he know the secret to obtaining the deeper connection that Isak and Folke now share.

Throughout the film, cinematographer Philip Øgaard and director Bent Hamer exploit every opportunity to frame various other metaphors that support the film’s humanistic perspective. Indeed, Kitchen Stories is a virtual case study in how to use composition to convey maximum meaning and effect — no throwaway shots will be found. Shooting in the 2.00:1 aspect ratio, Øgaard, whose work was nominated for a Camerimage Golden Frog, is able to effectively compose some very difficult shots, such as those of Isak and Folke occupying the same frame in the kitchen — where Isak is seated at a table and Folke is perched near the ceiling on his high chair. Shots are static or almost static, in that most camera movement is subtle but very precise: a creeping push-in or tilt, or a slow dolly move around a character.

Øgaard’s lighting is tasteful and very naturalistic. Also noteworthy is the period production design by Billy Johansson; the sets’ colors, coupled with the saturated photography, yield an appropriately “Kodachrome” look. MGM’s DVD serves this look well with an excellent transfer — the picture is crisp, with strong color and contrast, and suffers from very few artifacts, even in the variety of patterned textiles on display. Some dust specks crop up toward the end of the film, but they are not distracting.

The deliberately paced but well-crafted Kitchen Stories appeals to our natural instinct toward voyeurism, and we can’t help but watch with amusement as the film’s charm takes hold. As an example of cinematography complementing — and elevating — a story, Kitchen Stories qualifies as a must-see.

— Douglas Bankston

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.