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Delicately put and yet awfully fun

Times Staff Writer

To see the subversively funny “Kitchen Stories” is to laugh in a way you may have forgotten you could. It is to relish delicacy, not excess, sophistication rather than brashness. It’s to experience a comedy that manages to add warmth and even poignancy without sacrificing any laughs.

A major critical and financial success in its native Norway and one of many fine films to be inexplicably ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences’ foreign-language committee, “Kitchen Stories,” written (with Jorgen Bergmark) and directed by Bent Hamer, is a splendidly low-key effort. It treats a dead silly situation with complete seriousness, mixing exactly calibrated comic effects with a gift for finding humor in the smallest moments and gestures.

The time is the 1950s, the backdrop is the emergent field of kitchen science, the attempt to rationalize housework by studying housewives’ movements and repositioning appliances off the results. “It is no longer necessary,” Sweden’s Home Research Institute boasts, “for a Swedish housewife to walk to the Congo to prepare dinner for a year. Now Northern Italy will suffice.”

Flush with this success and eager for new worlds to conquer, the institute sends a crack team of kitchen scientists across the border to the remote hamlet of Landstad intending to investigate and improve the lives of cranky Norwegian bachelor farmers. This proves, not unexpectedly, to be more difficult than anyone anticipates, and the resulting deadpan comedy of manners takes delight in showing why.

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Even under the best of circumstances, the institute’s mandate would be a challenge. The investigators, whose identical lime-green trailers are parked next to their subjects’ houses so they can observe at a moment’s notice, are required, in a parody of scientific objectivity, to park themselves in extra-high tennis umpire chairs set up in a kitchen corner and not help out or say so much as a word.

For phlegmatic Swede researcher Folke (Tomas Norstrom), just getting into his assigned kitchen is a problem. Norwegian farmer Isak (Joachim Calmeyer), a hermit who avoids people whenever possible, regrets signing up for the project and initially refuses to so much as let Folke through the front door.

Once entrance is secured, the men engage in a wordless battle of wits and wills that is as delicious as a classic silent film comedy. With actions and reactions within the kitchen’s four walls as intricately worked out as a mathematical equation, the men throw themselves into amusing combat, constitutionally unable to remain as dispassionate as science demands.

As proximity leads both men to ever so slowly bend the rules of the experiment, the dance of intimacy and trust begins. For this is a work that believes that friendship can be more important than science, that truly understanding anything or anyone without conversation is impossible.

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Much depends on the acting in a film like this, and “Kitchen Stories” is anchored by strong performances by accomplished veterans. Swedish actor Norstrom is also the artistic director of a theater in Stockholm, and Norway’s Calmeyer, who’s reportedly played more Ibsen roles than any other actor, was made a Knight of the Order of St. Olav for his contributions to his country’s theater.

Writer-director Hamer’s resume is not as extensive, but his ability to find humor in the subtle rivalry between these countries and his knowledge of the formidably laconic Scandinavian culture, where no one is the least bit demonstrative even under the best of circumstances, is another plus for the film.

You can get a sense of how delicate a touch the filmmaker has before anyone says a word, as you watch a line of exquisitely designed, egg-shaped, lime-green trailers winding their way through scenic rural Norway. Not only are “Kitchen Stories’ ” performances perfectly modulated, its color scheme (Billy Johansson is the production designer) is as well. There’s nothing casual about the way this film has been put together, yet that painstaking care leads to laughter that is completely unrestrained.

*

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‘Kitchen Stories’

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Sophisticated sense of humor

Joachim Calmeyer ... Isak

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Tomas Norstrom ... Folke

Bjorn Floberg ... Grant

Reine Brynolfsson ... Malmberg

Released by IFC Films. Director Bent Hamer. Producer Bent Hamer. Screenplay Bent Hamer, in co-operation Jorgen Bergmark. Cinematographer Philip Ogaard. Editor Pal Gengenbach. Costumes Karen Fabritius Gram. Music Hans Mathisen. Production design Billy Johansson. Running time: I hour, 35 minutes.

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In limited release.


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