It's always dark in Oslo

Beyond having a truly magnificent name, Norwegian director Bent Hamer has written and directed 3 well-received films, Kitchen Stories (2003), Factotum (2005) and his latest, O'Horten (2007), which was just released on DVD in the last few weeks. I liked the very quirky Kitchen Stories. It had a droll sense of humour and weird Nordic sensibilities that translated nicely to film. I never saw Factotum.

O'Horten received nearly universal praise from critics (89 on RottenTomatoes.com and an average of 78 on Metacritic.com, both solid scores) with some glowing comments in the text of most of the reviews I read and as a result I had some modest expectations going in. I'm going to swerve out of my lane for a moment here and talk about film criticism rather than the movie. There are certain types of pictures that I find myself wanting to like and root for, sometimes more than the film likely warrants - little indie films, old classics, slice of life oddities, Jarmusch's output, “smart” films and after viewing O'Horten, I think I'll now add, Scandinavian pictures. I wonder if this occurs with others or if critics in general are apt to see certain kinds of films in a positive light, regardless of their actual merits. I think it might explain why this film received so much acclaim. It may be hard to like, but it's impossible to hate.

O'Horten is one of two things, either a delicate, minimalist, surreal comedy (if you were to believe most of the critics), or alternately, a dull-as-dishwater yawn-fest that never gets going and delivers only a handful of genuinely engaging moments (if you happen to scroll down and read a few viewer comments). So which is it? To be honest, I'm not sure if you couldn't make a fairly compelling argument either way. I believe this is a film that you need to have some distance from (and a few days to reflect upon) before you can pass judgment. In spite of the awkward shifts and endless chair repositioning I found myself doing as I watched/endured it, O'Horten has been rattling around in my craw ever since. Again, I'm not sure if this is a function of the film's qualities or my astonishment to have lasted through the O'Horten's 90 minute running time without falling asleep or strangling the cat to create some tension in the room.

The plot(?) is extremely simple. After 40 years of service, a dedicated train engineer retires and tries to figure out what to do with himself. It's one part About Schmidt, one part Gran Torino and twelve parts Jacques Tati (a Le retraite de Monsieur Hulot, if you will). It captures, perhaps too well, the melancholy of having spent a lifetime pursuing mundane and singular interests and the difficulties people have adjusting when the framework of their existence suddenly vanishes. O'Horten is truly the antithesis of how an American film would cover the same themes and material. Eastwood's Walt Kowalski for example, goes out in a blaze of gunfire/glory in Gran Torino while Odd Horten goes ski jumping at night, skinny dips in the local public pool and sips draft in the world's most depressing bar.

So there you have it, an unconventional, glacially-paced, dryly whimsical, deadpan reflection on aging and rebirth that will either speak to the viewer or drive them utterly insane with twitching boredom. Hamer's completely subdued, off-centre cinematic sensibilities are in polar opposition (note the hilarious Nordic pun) to Hollywood's and it makes O'Horten either a breath of fresh, wintery air or as Monty Python once noted about Australian wines, a thing to be laid down and avoided. This is about as close to fucking Norway as I ever want to get, but in retrospect I don't regret the 90 minute investment O'Horten asked of (and amazingly, got from) me. Perhaps all those critics that gave it such overwhelmingly positive reviews felt the same way.


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