Kitchen Stories Review
In an effort to develop the most efficient and user-friendly arrangement of home kitchen applicances, the HRI – Home Research Institute of Sweden - have already in the 1940's conducted extensive surveys and studies into the domestic needs of Swedish housewives in the kitchen environment. Their knowledge of a significant part of their market remains incomplete however – the behaviour and habits of the single male in the kitchen. A small unit of experts is therefore sent across the border to Norway to stay with volunteers and observe how they function in their kitchens. One of the reluctant volunteers, Isak (Joachim Calmeyer) proves a difficult subject for Folke Nilsson (Tomas Norström), who sits in a high-chair in the corner of the room and monitors Isak’s every movement. Observers are charged not to interfere or influence behaviour in their study subjects and certainly not to communicate with them, but this unusual situation proves to be a bit more than both men are capable of coping with.
Kitchen Stories seems to enjoy poking a bit of fun at national characteristics and behaviour of Scandinavian countries, and its humour is certainly of the droll Nordic type that characterises the Finnish films of Aki Kaurismäki. The Swedes are portrayed as serious, scientific and rational – not just in their precision in making household appliances, but in their obsessiveness even in driving on the left-hand side of the road, unable to understand and even being physically sick at the thought of driving on the right when it has been “scientifically proven” to be safer to drive on the left. There is also a brief allusion made to Sweden being neutral observers during the war, something that the Norwegians seem unable to forget, making a Swedish man sitting up in a corner of Isak’s house observing him a little more pointed. The Norwegians are characterised here as being solitary oddballs living in the sticks, who communicate infrequently and laconically. Despite their differences however, interaction is inevitable, or rather it is because of their differences that interaction occurs and of course gives rise to the absurdist humour of the film.
The film’s humour is however wider than that of just a play on national characteristics, and the film’s message is simply that diversity and friendship are good things. Inevitably, the Swedish observers are unable to handle this implacable Norwegian attitude, and the Norwegians come out of their enclosed protectionist mistrust of outsiders. Behaving according to national characteristics or within expected norms dictated by society or scientifically proven best-methods are just not good for human beings. Being open to other ways of thinking, learning from each other and the simple act of communication, as opposed to merely observing, makes life a little more comprehensible and bearable – a point demonstrated also in the similarly dryly funny The Station Agent last year. Like that film, Kitchen Stories doesn’t approach this point in any deep or meaningful way, just in the simple story of unusual characters in an absurd situation, with droll observational humour that is not in the least laboured.
This review is of the Region 1 DVD released in the United States by MGM.
The film is transferred at a 2.00:1 aspect ratio. Video quality is excellent throughout – a clean crisp image that balances well the combination of bright high-contrast outdoor scenes in the snow with the softer duller colour schemes of the interior of Isak’s house. Dimly lit night-time scenes are also beautifully balanced and detailed. Apart from the rare white dustspot on the print, there is barely a mark or flicker in the image. Colour tones are warm and accurate, showing clarity and fine detail. The picture is not perfect however – there is a touch of softness in some scenes and some compression artefacts show in minor blurring of movement. But that’s just being picky – overall this is an impressive presentation of the film.
The film comes with a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which is hardly appropriate for the simple nature of the film, but it actually works quite well. The mix is certainly front-centre based, but it opens-up well for the music score – a wonderful selection of Swedish songs from the 40’s or 50’s – and makes use of the surrounds appropriately for sound effects, footsteps and outdoor noises. The dialogue is clear and strong at all times.
English subtitles are optional and are clearly readable in a white font.
The only extra feature relating to the film is a Theatrical Trailer (1:39) with an American voice-over and intertitles which, untypically for a foreign film, works very well and captures the film’s sense of humour perfectly. The only other extra features on the disc relate to trailers and promotion for other MGM titles.
Kitchen Stories is a beautiful little film, full of charm and humour, but in a gentle, touching way rather than a laugh-out loud manner. Along the way, it makes some lovely observations that say not so much about the national characteristics of Scandinavians as about people’s nature in general, about human interaction, communication and simply friendship. MGM’s DVD release is of fine quality though fairly bare-bones, but there is nothing more demanded for this film other than the viewer’s willingness to observe and participate.