The Home Research Institute is a kind of Swedish answer to Betty Crocker, studying the kitchen habits of lonely Norwegian bachelors to help them design a more efficient kitchen.
That Swedish occupying army of G-men flows into wintry Norway looking for "just the facts, ma'am." But they soon discover there are actual people lurking beneath folksy farmers.
Folke (Tomas Norstrom) is one of those Stockholm scientists. He is deployed to farmer Isak's house. Every day, like some archetypal 50s suburbanite, he dresses in a suit and carries his briefcase and lunch into Isak's (Joachim Calmeyer) kitchen where he perches on a silly wooden lifeguard chair in the corner. Folke and his fellow scientists have strict instructions not to interact, talk to, or in any way communicate with the men they study. Instead, like a Wimbledon tennis ref, Folke looks down on the movements of his human lab rat, recording his every move in a fat notebook.
Isak regrets ever signing up for the study and initially does all he can to sabotage Folke: cooking in his bedroom unobserved, or turning out the lights when he leaves the kitchen so poor Folke sits in the dark.
Like all things in life, the beginning of the friendship between the two men starts with a small detail. One day Folke sneaks down from his perch to use Isak's salt to season his hard-boiled egg. That action inspires the first real communication between the men and it opens the door to a growing ritual of neighborliness among strangers.
The men begin to trade stories. They share coffee and pipe tobacco. When Folke gets sick, Isak introduces him to an oddball Norwegian folk cure involving a cat and a horse. The film beautifully captures the choreographed moves -- as elaborate as a minuet -- that come with the beginning of a friendship.
Isak's grouchiness parts like a thick fog to reveal more poignant qualities such as a heart-wrenching Parkinson's tremor and a slow-moving gait that signals the onset of debilitating old age.
The film is a touching and tender treatment of the frail, solitary nature of Isak's bachelor life, with its odd, irrational customs. And director Bent Hamer shows us why Folke has every reason to sympathize. Camping out each night in his little trailer, he is as isolated as Isak. In a scene both comic and moving, he receives a care package of Swedish food from an elderly aunt. He gulps this homey feast with the ferocity of a child gobbling candy, quenching his own loneliness through the familiar comfort of food.
Despite its quirky opening and Hamer's droll wit, Kitchen Stories has some fairly serious matters on the burner. The film shows how cultural differences, no matter how slight, have the ability to make enemies out of neighbors because what applies to science also applies to war. The situation in which the Swedes are placed -- with instructions not to interact with the local populace -- perfectly mimics the instructions given to occupying armies when they enter a hostile or foreign country.
Kitchen Stories is a wry, sensitive little film that often treats its material with a distracting flippancy that initially makes it hard to get a grip on the film's rhythm and tone. The film at times moves toward Aki Kaurismaki wackiness, but it always backs off before taking a plunge into true comedy.
Kitchen Stories succeeds when it cuts out unnecessary details and sticks to what it does best: capturing that fascinating and sweet detente brewing between Swede and Norwegian in a simple country kitchen.
Kitchen Stories will be presented as part of this month's Charlotte Film Society series, which begins this Friday at the Manor. The other featured titles are Godzilla, Seducing Dr. Lewis and The Twilight Samurai. For details, go online to http://charlottefilm society.com or call 704-414-2355.