Psalms from the Kitchen

in 13rd Tromsø International Film Festival

by Gareth Evans

From the title on, the suggestive, allusive and even gently absurdist qualities of leading Norwegian director Hamer’s third feature, making its festival premiere at Tromso, are effectively signposted and focus attention on what is an original and rewarding picture, one that balances sincerity, subtlety, humour and heart in equal measure, while remaining throughout a resolutely cinematic experience. Indeed, the titular devotions, referring initially to the scientific study that fuels the narrative and then to the more humane lessons that can be drawn from such a programme’s collapse, are also evident in the care and craft on show from all concerned with this production. A beautiful and precise design sits at the heart of the film’s visual success and holds the eye in the opening sequences. It is the early 1950s and Sweden’s ‘Home Research Institute’, having successfully created the perfect kitchen for the national housewife (via exhaustive behavioural mapping) set their sights on the Norwegian bachelor. From the lab environment to the caravan and vintage Volvo convoy that makes its way to the experimental zone – the farming community of Landstad – the retro detailing and colour palette of the film are flawless and engaging.

The plan is simple, and disastrous. An inspector installs himself on a stepladder in the voluntary subject’s kitchen and over weeks logs all business in the room. However, while the scheme originator flies back and forth across Scandinavia, ever more debauched and remote from research, an officious manager increasingly loses control over the exercise, as inspectors drink themselves out of a job or, more likely, break the code of silence and distance the task demands; conversations and friendships ensue, none more poignant than the one at the film’s centre, beautifully paced and played by Joachim Calmeyer as the initially taciturn and suspicious farmer Isak Bjorvik and Tomas Norström as his intended overseer Folke Nilsson.

‘Psalms…’ is first and foremost a dryly humorous, tellingly observed and gently satirical deconstruction of the impulse to classify experience. It ridicules the bureaucracy of modernity while maintaining an empathetic understanding of its participants. Warm, wise and entertaining, it is a pleasure before it is a parable. It’s also considerably insightful on, and quietly observant of, the emotional hesitancies of masculinity. Just as in his notable debut ‘Eggs’ (1995), the location is a remote country house where the habitual interactions of two men – in the earlier work they’re septuagenarian brothers; in ‘Psalms’ it’s the farmer and his neighbour Grant (Bjorn Floberg) – are challenged by the arrival and incursion of a third into this routine, generally untested environment. Difficulties in communication, the inability to talk about or often even adequately to demonstrate feelings of affection or friendship, and then the positive transformations towards such expression, are winningly explored and visualised; most notably in a skilfully understated sequence where the inspector’s caravan is towed away in jealousy by Grant and dumped on the railway tracks to await collision (all this with the Folke asleep inside), only to be rescued by Isak and brought back with his horse and cart to its original spot, all without the inspector once aware or stirring.

However, perhaps most surprising, but absolutely welcome, is how the film provides an acute, relevant (albeit tangentially coded) commentary on the current obsession with ‘reality TV’ and its proclaimed desire to relay the truth of a given situation. The inbuilt failure of such a system (as Heisenberg discovered, to observe is to change what is viewed) is encapsulated perfectly in the failure of the kitchen study, which in turn, of course, makes a wry statement about the limits of cinema itself, any declared ‘reality’ of which is resolutely not the case, however charmingly and carefully, as here, it is delivered.

Gareth Evans