Owen Gleiberman
February 19, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Kitchen Stories

Current Status
In Season
91 minutes
Limited Release Date
Joachim Calmeyer, Tomas Norstrom, Reine Brynolfsson, Lennart Jahkel
Bent Hamer
Jorgen Bergmark, Bent Hamer

We gave it a B-

Kitchen Stories is set in Scandinavia during the early 1950s, when everyone the world over, apparently, was trying to turn domestic life into an experiment in efficiency. The film might be described as an experiment in comedy. Day after day, Isak (Joachim Calmeyer), a diffident and grizzled Norwegian farmer, sits around his cozy wooden kitchen, smoking a pipe and drinking coffee. He’s a deeply passive man, content to do and say nothing, so it’s the barest of intrusions, really, when Folke (Tomas Norström), a timid functionary from the Swedish Home Research Institute, is assigned to observe Isak’s kitchen behavior by sitting, all day long, in a giant high chair in the corner. The two are forbidden to communicate in any way, but the moment one of them breaks the rules to offer the other a pinch of tobacco, you know just where the movie is headed. One way or another it’s going to ask: If you rub these two incredibly dry men together, will they ignite a spark of humanity?

The slenderest of allegorical trifles, ”Kitchen Stories” reminded me of one of those quirky family-of-man animated shorts from the 1970s, in which a couple of abstract globs would evolve, in the space of six and a half minutes, from suspicion to love, demonstrating that we’re all really brothers and that nuclear war is a bad thing. There’s a wrinkle or two to the relationship: Folke, scribbling his notes, may think he’s the observer, but he’s being observed too — through a hole in the ceiling. In essence, though, we’re watching two stoically repressed cavemen learn that companionship is a better thing than isolation. I guess this was news in the barren Norwegian countryside. The icy whimsy of ”Kitchen Stories” is certainly well sustained, but you don’t laugh at the movie so much as wait for the joke to thaw.

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