Exploring Idiosyncratic Male Relationships in Bent Hamer's "Kitchen Stories" and François Dupeyron's "Monsieur Ibrahim"
by Peter Brunette
Set in rural Norway in the early 1950s, Bent Hamer's "Kitchen Stories" (opening in select theaters Friday from IFC Films) is a droll, exceptionally pleasant exercise that won't be to everyone's taste. An absurdist comedy that recalls both the Coen brothers' "Fargo" and the films of the French comic master Jacques Tati, it relies for its humor largely on sharply punctuated visual puns, oodles of unspoken dialogue, and an overactive soundtrack. The payoffs are slight, it must be admitted, and won't be enough to keep all viewers completely engaged, but they are steady, and taken in the right way -- with an expectation of bemusement rather than belly laughs -- "Kitchen Stories" is consistently satisfying. Toward the end, director Hamer seems to panic a bit, ratcheting up the emotion by turning his film into a more sentimental drama about friendship, and while this will help many viewers to cozy up to it more readily, it also works against its hard-won uniqueness.
The Swedish Home Research Institute wants, in an access of empirical, positivist zeal, to rationalize the postwar kitchen. Careful studies have enabled these obsessed scientific observers to deploy kitchen implements and work stations so as to enable the average Swedish housewife "to walk only as far as northern Italy over the course of a year's meal preparations, rather than to the Congo," as she had before they came on the scene. Now it is time to turn the microscope on some bachelors as well -- a Norwegian town is chosen owing to its plethora of this species -- and Folke (Tomas Norström), pulling his one-man trailer, heads off into the snow to investigate Isak (Joachim Calmeyer), who agreed to the intrusion because he thought he would be getting a horse out of the deal. Folke's not allowed to interact with Isak in any way -- this, obviously, would taint the study's objectivity -- but human nature quickly takes over and the investigation is fatally compromised. But from the messiness of real life, happily, comes a powerful friendship.
Director Hamer gets lots of mileage out of Swedish/Norwegian intercultural jokes, but these, inevitably, will play better in Scandinavia than in the U.S. He's adept at sight gags (for example, when we first see Folke perched hilariously high above Isak in a corner of the kitchen, silently taking notes). He knows exactly where to put his camera for maximum comic effect, and when and how to cut. Weird, imaginative moments abound, such as when Folke listens to Isak's mouth for radio signals and when a neighbor has his hair cut with his hat on. The rhythm of the acting is impeccably crisp, and the film wouldn't be nearly as engaging as it is without the presence of veterans Norström and Calmeyer. There's a steady stream of wonderfully observed interpersonal moments, but, for better or worse, they're always aimed -- intentionally -- at provoking smiles rather than guffaws. Aside from the pleasure of watching the relationship of these two lonely men grow, it's fun to see Heisenberg's principle -- that the observer of a scientific experiment always affects its outcome -- dramatically staged. Whether all this will be enough to completely satisfy, only individual viewers can say.
In "Monsieur Ibrahim" (known as "Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran" in France), which opened from Sony Pictures Classics in New York last Friday, the odd couple is comprised of a lonely, aging Muslim shopkeeper played by Omar Sharif and a young Jewish boy Momo (Pierre Boulanger). Set in 1960s Paris, the film succeeds marvelously in re-creating the ambience and vitality of a single lower-class street where prostitutes roam and teenagers hungry for life (and for sex from the prostitutes) rush home after school to blast American rock 'n' roll from their radios.
Alas, Momo's mother has departed before the film begins and his father is a dysfunctional depressive. When he too disappears, Momo is thrown upon the mercy of Monsieur Ibrahim, the "Arab" who owns the grocery store across the street (he's really a Turk), even though his prior relationship to him had been one of awkward thief to willing victim. Religious differences are explored, but never, happily, do they become the film's central focus. Rather, Momo begins to appreciate the wisdom embodied in Ibrahim's quotations from the Koran (hence the meaning of the French title) as he discovers a new father in this unlikely figure.
Handsome newcomer Boulanger is terrific, effecting just the right combination of teenage swagger and vulnerability. Look for a big career here. Sharif is even better, forbidding and warm all at once; this may be his best role since 1962's "Lawrence of Arabia." While the relationship that director François Dupeyron explores between these two appealing characters is nuanced and always involving, it must be admitted that, once Ibrahim has adopted Momo and taken off with him toward Turkey, his native land, dramatic interest falls off sharply. Their relationship has nowhere else to go, no other complexities to develop, and audience involvement grinds to a halt. Instead of complicating the plot, Dupeyron substitutes a kind of lame travelogue for narrative oomph, and it's on the cheap, as well, since we never see any shots of the places they're supposedly driving through. It does no good whatsoever that, at the very end, desperate to rescue the film and restore our flagging interest, the director invents a gratuitous, completely unconvincing accident to render everything more self-consciously tragic.