by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film at the San Diego Public Library last night was O’ Horten (note the space between the apostrophe and the second word, though imdb.com lists O’Horten, without the space, as an alternate title for the U.S. and U.K.), a 2007 film by Norwegian director Bent Hamer, whom I was curious about because I’d seen a previous film of his, Factotum (2005), also at a library screening: an intriguing adaptation of a novel by Charles Bukowski starring a seedy, gravel-voiced Matt Dillon as Henry Chinaski, the central character Bukowski clearly based on himself. I didn’t care for Factotum but that was more because I found Bukowski’s story boring — judging from this, all Bukowski ever did was drink, fuck and write about drinking and fucking, and since I don’t drink and have a very different attitude towards sex than he does I couldn’t relate to the character.
I couldn’t relate to O’ Horten, either — I had a hard time staying awake through it and I never quite “got” the film, even though I can see why Hamer made it (he both wrote and directed). In some ways it’s an obvious “bookend” for Factotum — where the Bukowski movie was about a man who’s out of place in the world because of his total nonconformity and his resulting inability to keep one job for long, O’ Horten is about a man who’s suddenly turned out of his job after 40 years and finds himself out of place in the world because of his total conformity. The central character, Odd Horten (Bård Owe) is 67 years old and has just reached the mandatory retirement age and is forced to give up his beloved job as an engineer on the Norwegian railroad (the trains we actually see him driving are more like trolleys — they’re streamlined and powered by electric cables suspended above them — than what we usually think of as trains, even though they go long distances across the Norwegian countryside) with almost no idea what he’s going to do with himself from then on.
It doesn’t help that he seems to have had no life outside of work — the only relative we see is his mother (Anette Sagen); if he ever had a lover (of either gender!), a spouse or children, we don’t get to meet them — or that just about everyone he attempts to befriend, including Trygve Sissener (Espen Skjønberg), a man he literally picks up off the snow-drenched streets (we don’t ever get to forget this is all taking place in a cold Northern country!) and takes home, dies almost as soon as he’s got to know them. There are some marvelous visual scenes in O’ Horten — the opening showing his last run as an engineer, in which he has to keep his eyes open through drastic alternations of glaring white light reflecting off the snow and pitch-black darkness, broken only by a white circle of light at the front of the train, as it goes through tunnels; a scene ripped off of The Best Years of Our Lives in which Horten walks through a group of parked locomotives and sadly reminisces about his past; and a climax in which he hurls himself off a deserted ski jump (he has skis and goggles but no poles or any other equipment), we get a point-of-view shot of one of those irises of light at the end of a tunnel, and … at first we think he’s died but he later turns up in one piece, seemingly none the worse for wear (though my husband Charles pointed out that there’s no indication of how much time elapsed between the two scenes — he could have been in hospital for six months or a year recovering from his injuries after the jump).
It also has a lot of welcome indirection — Hamer keeps some of his climaxes tantalizingly off-screen and lets us fill in the gaps instead of thinking he has to show us everything — but it suffers from one of the most annoying flaws in a movie: Hamer can’t make up his mind whether he’s doing a drama or a comedy, and his attempts at both clash. When the film began my thought was, “O.K., it’s going to be Wild Strawberries with an engineer instead of a professor,” but then Hamer put Owe through some odd attempts at subtle slapstick (one imdb.com commentator compared him to Jacques Tati, another moviemaker I find rather overrated — especially compared to Buster Keaton, who pioneered the “great stone face” approach to comedy Tati copied and Owe seems to be drawing on here, and indeed Keaton’s most famous movie cast him as a railroad engineer), notably a bizarre scene in which Horten is supposed to meet a possible buyer for his boat (why he wants to sell his boat when he’s finally got enough time to enjoy it is a mystery Hamer never bothers to explain) at the airport, and he stumbles around until he ends up standing in the middle of a runway.
The pathos of a man turned out of the job that has defined him his entire adult life was better done way back in the silent era with F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), and O’ Horten comes off with that odd coldness I’ve seen in a lot of Scandinavian movies, a coldness in emotion to match the region’s quite visible coldness in temperature, which I noted most recently in the teenage vampire movie Let the Right One In. The region’s two best directors, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman, took that emotional chill and built a powerful aesthetic around it, but though he’s clearly a talented director Hamer is no Dreyer or Bergman.