Wednesday, June 17, 2009

O' Horten

Go figure. I was half-planning on bailing on the Chlotrudis movie last night - it looks like basically everybody decided to pack or head to Provincetown instead, and I was just sitting by the theater, reading a book, figuring I'd go home if I was going to be the only one there. One other person showed up.

And, happily, it was a darn good movie. I don't know if I'd seen a trailer or anything, but I'd half-filed it away as a "look how quirky I am!" movie, which it may technically be. It makes it work, though - it's never annoyingly self-aware of its cuteness, and it's got undercurrents of something a little more serious without getting maudlin. It really is the "coming of old age" movie that Up's director described his film as being.

O' Horten

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 June 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

O' Horten is what one might call dry, if given to the same sort of understatement as the film itself. The "O" stands for "Odd"; that may be a relatively common name in Norway which has nothing to do with its meaning in English, but "odd" describes the movie as well as anything else.

Odd Horten (Bård Owe) has been a railroad engineer for nearly forty years, and looks like he could have another ten years of it in him, despite having reached the retirement age of 67. He's a quiet man who lives in a small Oslo apartment near the train tracks, smokes a pipe, and stays in the same bed & breakfast owned by Svea (Henny Moan) in Bergen before making the return trip. Retirement finds him a bit adrift - he checks on his mother at the nursing home, sells his boat to his friend Flo (Bjørn Floberg), and frequently dines at the same restaurant. He meets a new friend in Trygve Sissener (Espen Skjønberg), who talks of his time as a diplomat in Africa and Indochina.

Odd Horten may at times seem a passive character, and that is in some ways part of the point: He's been content in his routine all his life, and doesn't quite know what to do with himself now that it's gone. It makes him a wonderful straight man, though; he reacts with a kind of bemused acceptance to the peculiar events around him, highlighting the strange within the ordinary and the ordinary within the strange. Owe is wonderful in the part - as one character points out, he bears his age well, although his face does have plenty of lines that come from experience. There's hints of both formality and impishness to him; he can give off the air of a hesitant, guilty child at times.

Indeed, for all the movie often feels like Odd reacting to strange things around him, he's just as often put himself into those situations. There's a lot of Jacques Tati's M. Hulot to Odd, actually - the pipe, the lack of wasted words, the gentle physical comedy that plays out over a very episodic film. It's an older version of the character, though, confronting not middle-aged confusion but elderly reality. As funny as most of the episodes are, there's poignancy to many of them, too, as Odd confronts, either directly or by proxy, what it means to consider the time that lies both ahead of and behind someone his age.

Interestingly, after the first episode or two, he doesn't do it through comparison with the frivolous young. Most of the other characters in the movie are around Odd's age, and the seasoned actors playing them are a joy to watch. Like Owe's, Henny Moan's face has the story of a lifetime written on it, and despite her Svea being in less than a handful of scenes, we feel like we know everything about it, especially a presumed longtime friendship with Odd. Espen Skjønberg is deadpan-funny as Trygve, perfectly communicating both the wonder of a grandiose life and the tragedy of how one's flesh does, in fact, weaken before one's spirit. Then there's Ghita Nørby as the widow of Odd's favorite tobacconist, whose time on screen is a perfect rendition of how old age can be a delicate balance of holding on and letting go.

Writer/director Bent Hamer uses this to send Odd on a very specific kind of emotional journey (Up's Pete Docter described his film as a "coming of old age" story, and the term fits O' Horten perfectly). He's greatly aided by his setting - the film is set at winter, and presumably in part because of the long Scandinavian nights, much of the story takes place after sunset. There's constant snow, and the trains plunge in and out of tunnels, both those dug through mountains and created by high snowbanks. It's late, this says, although the landscape is dazzlingly bright and the days are beautiful. There's a single shot of Bergen that only briefly comes into focus (perhaps Odd takes it for granted?) that makes me want to visit, a trick repeated later for Oslo at night.

For all that potential melancholy, though, O' Horten is a tremendously cheerful movie. The jokes are frequent and funny, tremendously droll. Odd and the rest of the characters are tremendously charming, and the message is ultimately pretty upbeat. It's a real treat.

Also at HBS.

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