"O' Horten": The Quiet Man By Christian Monggaard

in 61st Cannes Film Festival

by Christian Monggaard

“All my films are an attempt on my part to see something, which is common for us all,” Norwegian director Bent Hamer once said to this writer about his philosophy of filmmaking and storytelling. “But you have to do it from a sharp point of view, where it is easier to focus on the things you want to tell. It isn’t really about film — it is not at all about film. It isn’t about literature or painting or music, either. It’s being, and putting it in some sort of context. There is always a formal side of things, and my formal side is film, but for God’s sake, don’t ever let it come between you and me.”

In his fifth feature film, the very funny and very moving O’ Horten, which was competing in the sidebar “Un Certain Regard”, Hamer, who in 2005 did the English-language Charles Bukowski film Factotum, has returned to Norway and the territory he had explored in his earlier films, Eggs (1995) and Kitchen Stories (2003), both of which were also shown in Cannes.

This time, Hamer tells the story of a retired engineer, Odd Horten — what a name! — whose whole life is driving trains back and forth between Oslo and the north of Norway. At the beginning of the film, in some stunningly beautiful images of snow-covered landscapes shot by John Christian Rosenlund, you get a sense of why Horten loves his somewhat lonely job so much, and why he feels so lost when he goes into retirement.

Played by the 71-year old, Norwegian-born actor Bård Owe, who has been living and working in Denmark for most of his life — one may recognize him as the strange pathologist, Dr. Bondo, in Lars von Trier’s exceptional TV series The Kingdom — Odd Horten is what you could affectionately call a typical Bent Hamer character: a quiet, unassuming man who keeps to himself and is not always capable of expressing himself — which, pipe in mouth, lands him in some really awkward situations:

He must flee a public bath in a pair of bright red high heels, because he is surprised by two young women swimming in the nude after hours; he spends a whole night sitting in a chair in a young boy’s bedroom, helping the boy to sleep, because Horten, in an attempt to get to a party at the flat of one of his colleague’s flat, climbs through the wrong window; he looks for an acquaintance at the airport and ends up smoking a pipe on one of the runways with airport security as baffled spectators.

One could argue that these scenes don’t take the film anywhere, but actually they are very important — and very entertaining — parts of telling the story of a man who is so out of touch with the real world that he doesn’t always realize what he is doing, what is out of the ordinary. Horten is a not-so-distant relative to Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot, and Hamer, who has a good eye for detail and for letting images speak for themselves, does in fact share some stylistic traits with Tati. Tati was a master at using only images and sounds; like Hamer, he satirized the (dis)comforts of modern life and man’s obsession with developing and constantly moving forward, no matter what the consequences.

One can also spot similarities between Hamer and Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki, though the Norwegian filmmaker certainly has his own, quirky sensibilities, such as when he ever so gently lets Horten crawl out of his shell through a series of strange encounters. In Bård Owe, Hamer has found the perfect instrument for his kind of deadpan, almost silent comedy. The part of Odd Horten is definitely one of Owe’s best and most moving — he has a wonderful face. When he leaves the railway and the safe, daily routines, you can sense the impact it has on him just by looking in his eyes and studying the way he moves his body.