Review: 'O'Horten'

A train engineer's take on retirement slips into the absurd in this surreal Norwegian comedy from director Bent Hammer.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Actor Bard Owe as Odd Horten in "O' Horten" from Sony Pictures Classics.
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The Norwegian director Bent Hammer, whose new film, "O'Horten," is about a newly retired train engineer, has that scarcest of qualities – a uniquely comic way of seeing. Despite all the comedies that have been filmed over the years, few look or sound as if they were made by a single, shaping sensibility.

Sometimes this singularity of sensibility is an illusion. Many of the brightest Hollywood comedies, for example, from "His Girl Friday" to "Tootsie," were veritable constellations of collaboration. But film artists with true comic vision are very rare: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati, Ernst Lubitsch, not many others.

I am not suggesting that Bent Hammer belongs in this pantheon. Of the three feature films of his that I've seen (he's made five), none are masterpieces, although "Kitchen Stories," that supernal inventory of Norwegian idiosyncrasy, is a minor miracle. But everything he does is breathtakingly distinctive. Even his sole Hollywood foray, the uneven "Factotum," is an original. Starring Matt Dillon as the young Charles Bukowski before brawliness got the best of him, the film has a funky sweetness all its own. Hammer can find lyricism in the strangest places – in fact, those are the places he covets.

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The "O" in "O'Horten" stands for "Odd," a common first name in Norway and also, under the circumstances, perfectly apt. Horten (Baard Owe) has been gently pushed into retirement. Living alone in an apartment appropriately close to train tracks, taciturn to the point of near-muteness, he finds himself unsuited to the pensioner's life. He's not lonely, exactly – since he never had many friends, he doesn't really miss not having them.

But being a train engineer literally gave direction to his life, and without the fixedness of his daily schedule he's unmoored. He visits his aged, uncomprehending mother in a nursing home; he discovers that his favorite tobacconist has died; he loses his shoes after-hours at a gym; he can't decide whether to sell his beloved boat. All of these events appear to carry equal weight with him. He passes his days in a kind of stupefied repose.

It is only when he encounters an old man, Trygve Sissener (Espen Skjønberg), that Horten is inspired to change his routine. His mother had been a ski jumper, and, inexorably, without being fully aware of it, Horten ends up ascending an Olympic ski-jump site. It's a comic apotheosis that is, at the same time, immensely touching – it's a tribute both to his mother and to his own gumption.

Hammer is overfond of artsy symbolism, and sometimes Horten's deadpan is just plain dead. The film has inextricable stretches that lead nowhere in particular (although perhaps they mean more if you're Norwegian). But at its best "O'Horten" is as absurdly melancholy as a painting by Magritte. I am thinking especially of the moment when we suddenly see straight-faced, business-suited townspeople on a snowy night sliding on their bottoms down the icy, hilly neighborhood streets. I didn't know what to make of this image and yet it seems precisely right. In Horten's world, which often seems virtually uninhabited even in the city scenes, the magical and the mundane coalesce in such playfully surreal ways that we are constantly spun around.

The movie's most hushed and eerie sequence comes when Trygve, blindfolded, drives his car through the deserted night streets of Oslo. Horten, his passenger, is mortified at this stunt but also enthralled. (It's almost a warm-up for his ski jump.) Throughout "O'Horten" Hammer keeps the focus on Horten's blankly expressive, Buster Keaton-like face. It's the still center of a sinuous and ever-changing mood piece. Grade: B+(Rated PG-13 for brief nudity.)

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