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Review: O'Horten

Norwegian would
By PETER KEOUGH  |  June 11, 2009
3.5 3.5 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for O'Horten

O’Horten | Written and Directed by Bent Hamer | with Bård Owe, Espen Skjønberg, Githa Nørby, Bjørn Floberg, Kai Remlov, and Henny Moan | Sony Classics | Norwegian | 90 minutes
Old age might not be as flighty in Norway as it is in the Pixar universe of Up, but it's no less surreal. In Bent Hamer's sub-Arctic (and non-animated) shaggy-dog story (with a real, non-shaggy dog), the vehicle for soon-to-be-retired Odd Horten (a terrific Bård Owe), engineer for the Bergen-to-Oslo run, is not a flying house but a bullet train. At the start of the film, he's in the driver's seat, puffing on a pipe, the cockpit opening like a video game into the endless snowscapes, and he's getting sucked into pitch-black tunnels leading to a pinhole of light, not minding that they're a metaphor for death.

But it's his next-to-last trip, and afterward he'll have to settle into a retirement that offers far less regularity than the railroad, one that will take him into an Aki Kaurismäki–inspired realm of deadpan anarchy and alcohol-fueled absurdity. And though Kaurismäki's repetition and inevitability offer their own hilarity, Hamer's looking-glass world of goofiness is every bit as elevating as Paradise Falls.

You know you're in a Scandinavian movie early on when at a convention of fellow engineers Odd is presented with "The Silver Locomotive" for his 40 years of service — after which they get down to the serious business of challenging one another to identify great trains based on recordings of their engine noises and whistles. Odd does not participate, but beneath his passivity he shares that spirit of eccentricity, as does Hamer. No platitudes about aging or sentimental bucket lists in this film, but rather a sly subversiveness.

Having spent his entire adult life following a schedule, Odd is familiar with the limbo of suppressed desires. Indeed, he need look no farther than his Alzheimer's-stricken mother, who still owns the pair of skis she used when she excelled at ski jumping but was denied participation on the Olympic team because of her gender. And so, uncharacteristically, Odd decides to join the boys for a few drinks at someone's apartment. He gets locked out, climbs up the side of the building, breaks into the wrong place, and ends up trapped all night in a little kid's bedroom. By the time he gets out, it's too late to make it to his final train run.

After that breach of normality, things get stranger — in small ways, little non-sequiturs. The cook at Odd's restaurant gets dragged away in handcuffs without explanation. Then there's that inexplicable interlude involving an ice storm, a valise, and a giant salmon. Odd responds at first with game bewilderment, and then impulsively. Along the way he sheds bits and pieces of his uniform (what happens when he loses his shoes is a hoot) and replaces them with what's at hand — a metaphor for his liberation from conformity, or his surrender to mortality, or both.

The elliptical narrative coheres a bit when Odd bumps into Dr. Sissner (Espen Skjønberg), a retired diplomat and dedicated lush who teaches him the art of driving blind. Hamer, meanwhile, sees everything. As he has done in such films as Kitchen Stories (2003), he observes the exact and skewed detail, the oppressive but chimerical Norwegian bleakness, the look, the feel, and the profundity of the everyday. As Odd learns, it's when the stuff of ordinary life is about to be lost that its true beauty is revealed.

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