Judge Elizabeth Skipper was disappointed when she realized this Norwegian film was not a how-to video for preparing lutefisk. Mmm...lutefisk.
"How can we think we can understand anything about people simply by observing them?"
A quiet and unassuming film about two quiet and unassuming men and the bond they forge under the oddest of circumstances, Kitchen Stories may have flown in below your radar, but Norway's submission for the 2004 Academy Awards (although it didn't make the cut) deserves your attention.
Facts of the Case
Having finished an in-depth study of the movements of housewives in order to design an efficient kitchen, Swedish researchers moved on to the habits of single men. In the 1950s, the researchers descended upon Norway, with one assigned to each bachelor in the study. Each was equipped with a tall chair and a notebook and was expected to remain impartial and unnoticed while observing his subject's every movement from the corner of the kitchen.
Kitchen Stories plays off this real-life study with a fictional account of subject Isak and his researcher, Folke. Isak regrets his decision to join the study and decides to have a little fun with Folke. He sets up an alternate kitchen in his bedroom and drills a hole in the ceiling so he can observe his observer while staying out of sight. But just as Folke realizes he's being toyed with and begins to think he should find a new subject, Isak opens up a little, and the two form a friendship of sorts. Soon they are talking and drinking together, the rules of the study having been abandoned in favor of companionship. And all is going smoothly until Folke's boss drops in for a visit.
Kitchen Stories is slow with very little dialogue, unbelievably dry humor, and a plot so minimalist I'm not surprised it comes from the same part of the world as Ikea. Oh, and it's in Norwegian. Yet, somehow, it not only overcomes these odds but actually uses them to its advantage to become a pleasing little film.
I have nothing but praise for the actors playing Isak and Folke, for their ability to breathe such life into their characters. With so little dialogue, this movie easily could have become stale, but Joachim Calmeyer and Tomas Norström pay attention to the detail of every movement they make and every glance they give. Only true talent can tell a story without saying a word.
To call the humor in Kitchen Stories deadpan is an understatement. It is like nothing I've ever experienced before and drier than even the driest of British humor (think The Office). Yet I found myself laughing out loud at some points, laughing at events or gestures that I wouldn't think twice about in any other movie but that in the context of this one were downright sidesplitting. Perhaps this is because I set low expectations and was therefore caught off guard by finding anything worthy of even a snicker in this film, but I prefer to believe that the humor in Kitchen Stories has nuances that most other films don't understand and that a little bit of high-quality humor goes a lot further than a truckload of fart jokes.
While watching the film, its plot felt robust until I started to think about it. Then I realized that, compared to other movies, not much really happens in this one. But if you glean nothing else from this review, please figure out that comparing Kitchen Stories to other movies is an exercise in futility. On paper, it is dull and pointless, an hour-and-a-half-long sleeping pill. In practice, though, it shines. So why judge it in the context of other films when it stands on its own?
Unfortunately, I must compare it to other films to judge its audio and video transfers, and here is where my praise ends. Including a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track seems silly to me, considering how little the DVD producers bothered to do with it. The surrounds are barely used; same with the subwoofer. I know being able to understand the dialogue is not important for a film with subtitles, but that's no excuse for ignoring the quality of ambient sounds and music. The 2.00:1 anamorphic video is no better, with too many specks of dirt marring the dark picture and lackluster colors. Much of the humor is visual, so it would be nice to see it all clearly.
Other than a theatrical trailer and a trailer for De-Lovely, this disc has no bonus features.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What happened? Where am I? Oh, sorry, I was watching Kitchen Stories and I must have drifted off…
I'm an MTV kid and so don't have much of an attention span. If I can find entertainment in Kitchen Stories, I think everyone should be able to. But I'm also a realist: If your taste in movies tends toward blockbusters and action flicks, don't bother. But if you've been known to enjoy something more low-key now and then, this one is for you.
Kitchen Stories is found not guilty of the charges of stalking and invasion of privacy and the request for a restraining order is denied.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
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