(2008)4.5Nathan SouthernDirector Bent Hamer's O'Horten belongs to a unique and very special subgenre of European films that many U.S. viewers may have never even seen. Like the outings of Finnish cause célèbre Aki Kaurismäki, or Russian director Boris Khlebnikov's absurdist masterpiece Free Floating, this slice-of-life saga revels in the magic of the banal. As in those other films, everything here is so straight-faced, so understated, so minimalist, that more myopic audiences might not even be able to detect the comedy. But this deadpan quality also makes O'Horten immensely, infectiously likable.
Baard Owe stars in the film as Odd Horten, a kindly Norwegian train driver who has reached 67 -- the magic age when he must take off his proverbial conductor's cap and pass it on to a younger generation. Following a comical incident where Horten ends up locked out of his own retirement party and spends the night in a bizarre location, this driver with a perfect job attendance record of 40 years accidentally misses out on his final conducting assignment and spends the next several days wandering aimlessly through life, encountering random absurdities and eccentric characters.
Rarely has a more passive figure than Odd occupied the center of a mainstream feature and rarely has a motion picture felt more rootless than this one. For much of the running time, the film so appears to lack a narrative structure that it teeters on the edge of sketch material, with each sequence functioning as its own little playlet. First Horten visits his debilitated mother, then he goes skinny-dipping in an indoor pool at night, then he decides to sell his boat, then he experiences an extended encounter with an eccentric "diplomat" whom he finds lying on the sidewalk like a sloshed down-and-outer, and so on and so forth. Sequences simply happen, with seemingly little or no connection to the events that precede or succeed them. But that randomness is exactly the point: Hamer uses Horten to meditate on the dangers of extreme reactionary behavior and on lives that lack any apparent purpose or drive.
Horten's decision to forge a new path by self-determinedly seizing control of his life (in a bravura denouement) marks the first real sign of change, as he quite literally lunges toward happiness. On that note, the film employs two wonderful ontological and kinesthetic metaphors, and the difference between the two neatly illustrates Horten's own personal arc. The first involves the imagery in the opening credit sequence, where we get a first-person shot of a railroad track, unfurling continually before the camera; this suggests the journey of a constantly unfolding personal life, with the deceptive notion of self-determinism masking the reality that the travel is "guided" by the tracks and thus safe, predictable. This forms a neat contrast to the picture's conclusion, which depicts Horten climbing up to the top of a ski jump, at night, and lunging down the run, with a dangerous leap into the darkness of the unknown.
The film's narrative looseness might risk alienating the audience were it not for two wonderful elements that run throughout the picture. Most significantly, Hamer carries a magnificent feel for absurdity and a wacky, off-the-wall sense of humor, with original jokes pulled from way out of left field. At times, this emerges from the nutty dialogue -- such as another conductor's assertion that he hopes they don't run into another moose on the railroad tracks because he still has blood on his jacket from the last time this occurred; at times, this emerges from Hamer's eccentric camera setups, such as a fixed establishing shot (utilized twice to bookend a scene) that depicts the staunchly postured Horten zipping back and forth across the screen as he stands on the back of an airport car, searching in vain for an elusive friend. The picture's second major asset is simply an aesthetic one; few comedies are so gorgeously photographed. Hamer and cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund bathe the film in the cold winter light of Northern Europe, with landscapes of white and iridescent blue, frequently offset by evening and nighttime glimpses of the warm lights illuminating Oslo and other cities and towns that occupy the film. This makes the Scandinavia at hand as inviting as any landscape ever captured on film. It also draws out Hamer's acknowledgement of the magnificent amid the everyday and guides the audience into sharing these perceptions.
A septuagenarian taking his penultimate voyage from Oslo to Bergen begins to mentally prepare for his final trip, but finds that sometimes things don't turn out as expected when he misses the last departure for the first time in 40 years.