After almost 40 years on the job, the Norwegian engineer Odd Horten (B?rd Owe), having reached the mandatory retirement age of 67, is given a party by his fellow engineers. They present him with a silver locomotive. Then they rise in unison, men and women alike, for a farewell cheer, imitating piston rods with their arms, all the while going chug-chug-chug, whoo! whoo!
Horten is a tall, well set-up man ? ?you wear your years well? a colleague says ? handsome, kindly and, though not without humor, serious and responsible. The writer-director Bent Hamer (Factotum, Kitchen Stories) starts Horten off on his new life ? suddenly without schedules and literally derailed ? in a sequence of comic episodes that are by turns sweetly realistic, sadly surrealistic or just plain bizarre. Much as in Don Quixote (and what a wonderful Knight of Doleful Countenance B?rd Owe would make), each episode, however fantastic, is utterly believable.
One winter evening Horten goes into a brightly lit tobacco shop where everything ? pipes, cigars, cigarettes ? is displayed behind glass as temptingly and neatly as in a pipe-smoker?s dream. And, as in a dream, Horten learns by stages that his friend who owned the shop is dead. Also, as in a dream, Horten?s questioning of his friend?s widow is interrupted not once but three times by a shabby old fellow who cannot remember whether he just bought matches or not.
Soon after, Horten passes a drunk lying in the street dangerously near the trolley tracks. ?I smell a pipe smoker nearby,? the drunk says. Horten helps him to his feet. A dignified man in his 80s, he needs but a moment to come to his senses and introduce himself. ?Trygve Sissener,? he says jovially. Now suddenly the best of friends, Horten helps Sissener (Espen Skj?nberg) back to his comfortable house in Holmenkollen, a neighborhood famous for its ski jump.
In a spacious drawing room decorated with East African sculptures, Dyak spears, blow-guns and Japanese masks, Sissener tells of a long and distinguished diplomatic career in West Africa and Indochina. A successful life, he goes on to say as they both down Scotch after Scotch, but a life not without sadness. His younger brother, Steiner, died prematurely. Near the end of his life, Steiner was diagnosed with schizophrenia. ?A tragic misdiagnosis,? Sissener says. Abruptly, he tells Horten that he can see with his eyes shut, ?a gift? he naturally had to keep secret because of his diplomatic status. Together with Sissener?s dog Milly, they navigate the empty streets of Oslo.
I think this is my favorite scene. It ends with what must be the quietest car crash in movie history. That aside, the scene reminded me of David Storey?s Home, also available on DVD, with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud. Espen Skj?nberg and B?rd Owe are that good and the dialogue is that subtle. I don?t have space to tell the end of the Sissener?s story, of the importance of the ski jumping theme in O?Horten or of the uniform tenderness with which Hamer?s script treats women. But I must mention that John Christian Rosenlund?s chiaroscuro camerawork perfectly complements the tragic-comedy of this wonderful film.
NOTE: Lance Hammer?s Ballast reviewed with enthusiasm in these pages, is at last available for rental or sale. So is Chris Fuller?s Loren Cass.
O?Horten; 1 Disc; Sony Pictures Classics price $28.96.
Norway; in Norwegian with English and French subtitles; 90 minutes.
Bonus features include: Interview with director Bent Hamer and composer John Erik Kaada.