What is it about forced retirement that brings out the best in filmmakers—for their characters, that is, not themselves? Whatever the cause, the subject has given us some of the most touching—and funniest—pictures of recent years, though they’re a varied lot—“About Schmidt,” “Schultze Gets the Blues,” even “Up.” To them you can now add “O’Horten,” a gentle, deadpan comedy-drama from Bent Hamer (“Kitchen Stories,” “Factotum”), whose first name suggests the offbeat qualities that make his work so peculiarly charming.
The quirky nature of the picture is also indicated by the given name of the main character—Odd Horten (Bard Owe), who, at sixty-seven, is about to retire from his job as a train motorman. Reserved and undemonstrative, Horten walks through a series of episodes that are quietly humorous and poignant all at once. The chain starts with his retirement dinner—an affair marked by hilariously appropriate rituals and after-meal games, all connected to the group’s railway profession—which is followed by the first of Horten’s misadventures, which finds him sneaking into an apartment where he’s waylaid by a little boy (Peder Anders Lohne Hamer–a relation, surely) with insomnia, an encounter that causes him to arrive too late for his final trip.
There follow other sketches, some of them touching (like the visit to his aged mother, who sits mute in a nursing home), others quietly amusing (like his after-hours meeting with a couple of swimmers at a public pool, or an encounter with airport security). The culmination is an episode featuring a strange fellow named Trygve (Espen Skjonberg), who invites Odd not only to spend the night at his remote house and tells him curious family stories, but to accompany him while he drives around the city blindfolded—a strange ability he claims to possess. In the end Horten comes to terms with his new, post-work life, liberating himself from his old fears and reluctance to connect; but, like the rest of the movie, the denouement happens without fanfare or phony uplift.
There’s an almost silent-movie quality to much of “Horten,” with the title character ambling about like a comedian from early in the last century (or, if you prefer, Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot, whom lanky Owe somewhat resembles). Hamer’s approach is rather like Tati’s, too, with Horten, usually silent, simply meandering into situations. But he doesn’t indulge in the elaborate setups that mark those models, nor the slapstick. Instead this picture opts for a more ruminative, low-key approach that aims to generate smiles rather than belly-laughs.
The cast act work admirably within this context, Owe reacting more than acting and the others circling around him, making their points without overemphasis. Even Skjonberg, the most extroverted of the bunch, gets his biggest laughs with understated moments like an encounter with an uncooperative ice-maker. This is a small-scale picture, but technically it’s fine, with John Christian Rosenlund’s camerawork capturing the frigid Norwegian locale splendidly, although some of the nighttime scenes are a bit clouded.
“O’Horten” doesn’t travel to distant climes the way “Schultze” did, but emotionally the journey is similar. They’d make a great double-bill, although you might pair this movie just as well with the delectable “Kitchen Stories” for a Hamer mini-festival. In any event you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to make the acquaintance of this wryly observant little film.