"O'Horten" is the kind of film that you're either going to find quietly charming or screamingly boring, depending upon your cinematic tastes. In the cinema verite tradition, this Norwegian film (with English and French subtitles) tells the story of a retiring train engineer in a style that matches the deadpan and taciturn manner of the main character, Odd Horten (Baard Owe). Writer-director Bent Hamer crafts a narrative that strives to depict real time vignettes, but the slow pacing and lingering shots that add interest for some will drive others to throw themselves on the tracks in front of the train. You know who you are. And the ones inclined to appreciate a film like this will keep reading.
The narrative proceeds with the determined steadiness of the trains we see passing through countless tunnels in a snowy landscape of overbearing mountains, and with the meandering whimsy of the smoke that curls from the pipe that O'Horten constantly smokes. This is a character study, and one 67-year-old man is the focus. And once he's retired, O'Horten finds himself in odd situations that would prompt a response from anyone but the nonplussed and bemused former engineer. He gets locked out of a building that's having façade work done and climbs the scaffolding, enters an apartment to pass through, and gets waylaid by a young boy who wants to read to him in his bedroom. He falls asleep and spends the night there, with the parents and rest of the family unaware. Creepy? In every movie but this one, perhaps, but it's part of the strange set of situational "tunnels" through which O'Horten passes to get to his narrative destination. Others include a ride with an old man who swears he can see with his eyes closed and wants to prove it to O'Horten by taking him on a drive while wearing a hood over his head.
Hamer provides plenty of point-of-view cinematography so that we can appreciate O'Horten's situations and mindset, but a bonus is the Norwegian landscape and the sense of life lived in isolation that permeates the film. If you're one of those who delights in international films because of the different worlds and lifestyles you can glimpse, then you'll be happy to learn that "O'Horten" takes you on a pleasing ride through Norway. If you're one of those who appreciates the more subtle humor of indie films, you'll warm to moments like the retirement party in which O'Horten's fellow engineers salute him in a peculiar "choo-choo" fashion.
The plot is simple. We join O'Horten for his second-to-last and last trips as engineer, and follow him on several (mis)adventures once he's retired and feeling a little directionless. There's not much more than that. The few digressions or sideplots in this film--more sidethemes, really--involve the women in O'Horten's life. Every time he drives his Oslo-to-Bergen route, he stays at the bed and breakfast (or home?) of a widow (Ghita Norby) and has dinner with her. He also has a rendezvous with Svea (Henny Moan) in the same polite, low-key style: few words and even less affection displayed. And in a touching scene that shows us where O'Horten is eventually headed himself, he visits his mother, Vera (Kari Loland) in an elderly care facility, where the conversation is limited to such things as "They say you ate well yesterday." Then again, that's not much different from the talk aboard the train: "I hope we can avoid moose on the tracks tonight. I still have blood on my jacket."
Hamer tries to be quietly quirky, and in this I think he's only partially successful. Some of the incidents seem odder than odd, which, in an essentially realistic narrative, feels more like an intrusion than one of the details that adds charm. And some might wish that the single apparent regret of O'Horten's life--that he was never an Olympic ski jumper like his mother--was more developed. There's also a self-conscious, even stylized deliberateness about the whole thing that again runs counter to the realistic narrative impulse. Some long lingering shots of O'Horten's implacable expression seem designed to produce a predictable response. More successful are those frames in which the director uses a stationary camera that keeps running after O'Horten leaves the frame, or his occasional aerial shot to give variety to the point-of-view perspective.
Curiously, in Norway "O'Horten" wasn't even nominated for Best Picture in that nation's annual cinematic awards, and won Amanda Awards only for Best Supporting Actor (Espen Skjonbeg) and Best Sound Design (Petter Fladeby). Perhaps the content was a bit thin, the pacing too slow, or the style a bit heavy-handed, because other than those three areas, there's little room for improvement. "O'Horten" is worth watching for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is Owe himself. He has just the right look: one which combines a kind of stupefaction with a bemusement of a man who has a sense of humor about life. Though the expression may not change throughout the film (and it's not the first time we've seen this--consider "About Schmidt"--the response feels totally appropriate given the routine steadiness with which O'Horten has performed for 40 years. It was enough to earn him a Silver Locomotive, and his story is enough to provide us with a pleasant evening of cinema.
Production values are quite good, as this was shot with 35mm film and so the grain is kept to a relative minimum. Colors are bright and true, faces and skin tones are natural-looking, and contrast levels seem strong. "O'Horten" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen.
The audio is a functional Dolby Digital 5.1 in Norwegian, with English and French subtitles. Silences dominate the film more than effects or even dialogue, and so it's hard to truly evaluate the soundtrack, except to say that it's clear and clean and nicely balanced. The mix produced a few surprises, though, since at least once a sound that was center-speaker and center-stage suddenly shifted to the right speaker. But overall, it's a decent audio experience.
The only bonus feature is an interviw with Bent Hamer and his composer, John Erik Kaada, It runs only 10 minutes or so, but Hamer makes the most of the time and packs it full of information and insights.
"O'Horten" won't be for everyone, but if you enjoy character-driven films that also treat the landscape as a character, this one has a certain charm and appeal.