The Norwegian good-neighborliness parable Kitchen Stories is an easy sell to anybody whose refrigerator is already festooned with magnets lampooning the can-do optimism of 1950s domestic goddesses. The film finds its foundation in the kitsch of postwar home science, addressing the positively fascinating subject of advancements in household efficiency. But what's going on under the Formica surface of Bent Hamer's film is as much about reconciling past hurts as hurtling headlong into the bread-baking future.
In the Sweden of the early '50s, something called the Home Research Institute is founded to study and improve the kitchen habits of the nation's housewives. The undertaking is such a success that the institute eventually elects to expand its interest beyond its previous parameters of nationality and gender. A team of observers is dispatched to Norway to monitor the kitchen rituals of the nation's single men presumably, to bring these bachelor homemakers the same benefits the institute has bestowed upon the ladies back home. To keep their investigations pure, though, the observers are to refrain from all substantive contact with the gentlemen they're assigned to study. No talking is allowed: The observers are merely to sit on pedestals in the corner of their subjects' kitchens and silently record everything they see. And when the day is over, they get to unwind in solitude in trailers parked outside. Anything more would jeopardize the project's credibility.
The movie is slow going at the outset, and logically so: Does surveying the food-prep routines of a bunch of unmarried Norwegians sound like a thrill a minute to you? There's a particular lack of activity in the household of Isak (Joachim Calmeyer), a reluctant participant in the program who isn't about to make life easy for his observer, the stoically suffering Folke Nilsson (Tomas Norström). Isak is up to so little during his kitchen hours that Folke begins to suspect he's actually cooking his food in an upstairs bedroom. Why? Just to be ornery and maybe due to a little cross-national bigotry, as well.
The minute their stalemate starts to become wearisome, though, the movie introduces its grand theme: Intimacy breeds sympathy. You can't be in regular contact with anyone, director/co-writer Hamer alleges, without feeling the urge to reach out to them on some level. It's true not just of the Isak/Folke relationship, which begins to thaw unexpectedly, but of the experiences being had by the other Swedish observers, who we learn are giving in to the temptation to chat and even drink with their charges.
What's transpiring is more than mildly transgressive amity it's a much-needed salve to resentments that have been lingering between the two nations since World War II. Kitchen Stories makes this point delicately and with taste, abetted by some immaculate shot composition that takes full measure of the story's essential immobility. (A recurring, oddly comforting motif: vintage autos parked in the snow.) One of those rare winning exceptions to the axiom that movies should move, this one shows what advantage can be earned when men of good will sit still together.