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'1001 Grams' has dry humor but is also melancholy

In 'Grams,' protagonist Marie works at the Norwegian Institute of Weights and Measures and she and others who spend their lives dealing with precision measurements lead lives of quiet chaos.

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    Marie (Ane Dahl Torp) and her suitor, scientist Pi (Laurent Stocker), ponder love – and the state of the national kilo – in ‘1001 Grams.’
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Norwegian writer-director Bent Hamer has a sly sense of deadpan irony that keeps his movies from resembling anyone else’s. The people in his movies don’t resemble anyone else’s either; they are as recognizably his own as are, say, Woody Allen’s. 

His most acclaimed film, “Kitchen Stories,” was a deft low-key comedy about a study by the Swedish Home Research Institute into a more efficient standardization of household kitchens. If you think that’s an unpromising subject for a movie, except maybe as a sleep aid, you don’t know Hamer.

His new film, “1001 Grams,” is almost as good as “Kitchen Stories,” with a story equally unpromising – but only in theory. It centers on Marie (Ane Dahl Torp), who, along with her highly respected father, Ernst (Stein Winge), works at the Norwegian Institute of Weights and Measures, where a prototype weight of the national kilo is closely guarded. 

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When the ailing Ernst is hospitalized, it falls to Marie to transport the prototype – an encased platinum-iridium compound housed in double bell jars – to Paris for a kilo conference where all national prototypes will be recalibrated against the international standard. The momentary unveiling of that international standard, referred to by one participant as “the mother of all kilograms,” resembles the presentation of a holy relic. 

Hamer is working in a more meditative and melancholy vein than he has in the past. The dry humor is certainly here – how could it not be, given the film’s setting? – but the focus is on Marie, who must contend with the aftermath of a breakup with her boyfriend and, soon, the death of her father. 

At first, with her cool blond looks and unblinking gazes, she seems nearly impassive. But her beautiful blankness is only a mask to cover her roiling feelings, which soon enough seep through. Marie deeply loved her father, and, alone, living in a spare apartment that is almost as cleanly calibrated as the national kilo, she seems as mutely forlorn as a character in an Edward Hopper painting.

An unstated irony of “1001 Grams” is that these people who spend their lives dealing with precision measurements lead lives of quiet chaos. Hamer is clearly on the side of disorder: He has Marie repeat a saying of her father’s – “Life’s heaviest burden is to have nothing to carry.” Paris for Marie represents an opening out of her life from the strict confines of her Norwegian existence. There she meets an eccentric, unassuming scientist, Pi (Laurent Stocker), who is one of the rare examples of a too-good-to-be-true suitor who is actually that good. They engage in one of the more unusual courtship rites I’ve seen in the movies: the recording, at various distances from Paris, of goldfinch warblings. (Pi’s novel theory is that the songs change in pitch as the birds approach the city).  

It could be argued, I suppose, that the film’s implicit opposition of cold and calculating science versus the revivifying messiness of life is dubious. Science, after all, has within it as much radiance, as much “art,” as anything else. But Hamer is not so much making a philosophical point here as a dramatic one. He sees the beauty in the spare, highly patterned existence of these people – some of his wide-screen compositions suggest the paintings of Mondrian – but he knows there is more to life than this. Calibration isn’t everything. Grade: A- (This film is not rated.)

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