January 04, 2010

MOVIES: O'Horten (Bent Hamer, 2007/US 2009)

For 40 years, Odd Horten (Baard Owe) -- that first name is relatively common in Norway -- has driven passengers up and down the length of the country. But now he's reached mandatory retirement age, and doesn't quite now how to cope with life when he's free to wander rather than forced to follow a track.

We spend a few days wandering around Oslo with Horten as he tries to adjust to his new life. Writer-director Bent Hamer gives us a clear sense of his discomfort and disorientation by gradually turning Oslo into a slightly surreal place, where everything seems to be just a few degrees off kilter. Strangers approach and start conversations that sound like coded messages from bad spy novels, asking if he likes some particular brand of butter. Routine events are disrupted in unexpected ways, as when police barge into his favorite restaurant and haul the chef away.

Through it all, Horten maintains a stoic deadpan, barely responding to anything, no matter how bizarre. There's something childlike about his response; to a 4-year-old, after all, the bizarre doesn't seem bizarre, because it's just one more in the endless series of things he hasn't ever seen before. "Oh, so this is what happens in the world," thinks the child. "Oh, so this is what happens away from the train," thinks Horten. It's a lovely performance from Owe, a marvel of calm and understatement.

I could have wished that the movie had ended one scene earlier; there is a beautiful, haunting, potent image at a popular Oslo sporting venue that should have been the final moment of the movie. But that's a quibble. O'Horten is an eccentric charmer.

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