When it comes to movies, most genres cross borders relatively unscathed. But as societies, are we supposed to watch each other's comedies?
The question nagged me during a recent viewing of “O'Horten,” a Norwegian film about the misadventures of a locomotive engineer, Odd Horten (Baard Owe), created by a guy named Bent Hamer. Is it a coincidence that both names would seem so, well, odd, to English-speaking ears? I can't say for sure, except that this is a movie about odd coincidences. Horten can't seem to turn a corner without running into trouble.
Within the first few scenes he must climb the side of a building in the middle of the night to get to a party after he finds the front door frozen shut. Sneaking through a stranger's apartment, he's discovered by a little boy who insists he sit beside his bed to help him sleep. Horten falls asleep instead, prompting a careful and hasty escape in the morning.
Believe me, it sounds much faster-paced and funnier in print. Watching it, you get the feeling the right audience is supposed to find it uproarious, even if you can only muster staying awake.
Horten's co-workers make fun of his name, but that's because, we learn, there's a city in Norway called Horten. We're left wondering if “Odd” is considered odd as well. There's no doubt the character himself is, though.
Hamer, who wrote and directed the film, was partly responsible for adapting 2005's “Factotum,” which had a similar style that I think distorted the wry wit intended by the Charles Bukowski novel it was based upon. Horten is the character Hamer wanted Bukowski's to be, a straitlaced, upstanding citizen beset by cruel twists of fate. There really isn't any story here except for the setup — Horten's retirement after 40 years conducting trains around the snowy expanses of Norway — followed by Horten's amiable wanderings and random encounters, which almost always turn out like a Kafka episode encased in ice.
All of a sudden in one sequence, Horten decides to sell his boat to a friend, who makes him travel way out to the airport to discuss the transaction. Horten wanders far and wide through various vast terminals looking for his buddy, only to be mistaken for a drug-toting terrorist, strip-searched and body-cavity checked. He finally finds the guy, spends a few hours helping him get to the docks and filling out the paperwork and then changes his mind about selling the boat.
As opposed to the parts of the movie I figured were supposed to be funny but couldn't be sure, Horten's deciding not to sell the boat after the ordeal was one of the parts I thought wasn't supposed to be funny but couldn't be sure. An equally confounding question is what Horten thinks. He might be a Norwegian Larry David if he had any reaction to the bad luck that befalls him, but as played by the doe-eyed Baard Owe he doesn't.
Some of what happens to Horten is so glacially paced that the snickers it inspires might not hit you until the next day. One night he finds a man passed out in the street (Horten himself is wearing a pair of women's high-heeled boots, but that's another story). The man invites Horten home for drinks. He's a former ambassador, he tells Horten, and regales him with stories about his travels and collections of artifacts. The ambassador also claims to be able to drive with his eyes closed, taking Horten out for a spin in his vintage car to prove it.
n the early morning they get in the vehicle with the ambassador's dog. He drives off into the snowy air. He stops at a light in town, pulls a ski cap over his eyes and proceeds for a block, almost running into an ambulance before slowly coming to a stop at the next light. The light changes a few times before Horten has the courage to wonder aloud why they haven't moved again.
To tell you what happens next would ruin one of the most elaborately staged, deadpan punch lines in the history of recorded comedy. If, after all, it's supposed to be a joke. You may laugh. You may slowly shake your head in bewilderment. Only one thing is relatively certain: You will not likely be inspired to visit Norway. (PG-13) 90 min. HHHII S