Norway’s entry for Best Foreign Language Oscar, O’Horten considers the life of a train engineer as he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 67. Writer/director Bent Hamer’s humane, gently absurdist film has visual heft and beauty, plus a good-natured hero with whom moviegoers scattered across the age spectrum will be able to identify. It’s possible the measured yet lively comedy will snag an Academy Award nomination; and though a win is doubtful given this year’s strong crop of subtitled films, the accolade would result in a significant spike in business.
You can’t blame Odd Horten for loving his job, or for approaching retirement with some trepidation. Driving Norway’s sleek, modern locomotives must be a rush. Watching one in motion near the beginning of the film certainly is exciting, and it’s easy to imagine the thrill (and responsibility) of being at the controls. There’s Odd—smoking his pipe, looking cool and focused, guiding his craft through dark tunnels and across the white, snow-blanketed landscape. On the job for almost forty years, the bachelor’s reliability and taciturn nature are legendary.
He meticulously follows a pre-work ritual that seems more stabilizing than stultifying. He lives alone alongside the railroad tracks in a modest Oslo apartment. He has his birds to keep him company at home and patronizes a local restaurant and tobacconist. He visits his mother in a nursing home. A former ski jumper, she suffers from dementia and doesn’t appear to know exactly who he is; nevertheless, he brings her grapes and tulips and conducts amiable, one-sided conversations. A fixture in his work routine is the small hotel where he always stays after runs to an unnamed town, and where the proprietress dotes on him.
What will Odd do with himself? How will he replace or alter these patterns? The movie gets increasingly surreal the further removed he gets from his job and as he grows slightly disoriented. The story contains small, primarily visual surprises that pass matter-of-factly. Following his retirement banquet, Odd finds himself climbing the scaffolding outside a colleague’s building and sneaking into an apartment where he encounters a little boy who insists Odd sit by the bed until he falls asleep. And in a later sequence, after swimming at the municipal pool, Odd comes out wearing a pair of red high-heels. No explanation is given.
Hamer doesn’t overplay these and other incidents: there’s nothing precious about them. The movie’s eccentricity is grounded in the protagonist, his fellow engineers (who humorously fetishize locomotives), and in a general preoccupation with forms of transportation. As he tries to find a new place in the world we see Odd riding a streetcar, agreeing to sell his boat (which necessitates a bus trip and leads to a strange airport odyssey) and traveling in an old Citroen through the pre-dawn streets of Oslo with an elderly diplomat behind the wheel who thinks he can drive blind. Finally, the most symbolic mode of transport for Odd is a pair of skis.
Thematically, O’Horten conjoins Hamer’s previous two films: 2003’s Kitchen Stories, a deadpan satire about Scandinavian conformity, and his English-language piece Factotum, released in 2005 and starring Matt Dillon as an alter ego of Charles Bukowski. Odd Horten is a uniquely Norwegian figure—familiar if not quite stereotypical—but the character can be read as a stand-in for modernity’s alienated loner, unable to function outside his niche. The movie is also about aging, of course, and the specter of death hangs over the action. The good news is that O’Horten defies death and the negative connotations of these two character types. If nothing else, few people take the same pride in, or derive as much satisfaction from, how they earn their living.
Along with cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund’s fantastic use of color and composition, John Erik Kaada’s music enhances the film’s upbeat and sophisticated tone. No aspect of the production lapses into silliness or tedious whimsy. Most notably, Baard Owe’s terrific performance balances plausibility with an appealing Everyman quality. As conceived by Hamer and embodied by Owe, Odd Horten is neither a loser nor a cipher. He emerges a well-rounded human being.
Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Baard Owe, Espen Skjønberg, Ghita Norby, Henny Moan and Bjørn Floberg
Director/Screenwriter/Producer: Bent Hamer
Genre: Comedy/Drama; Norwegian-language, subtitled
Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief nudity
Running time: 90 min
Release date: May 22 NY/LA