Thursday, September 3, 2009

Review: "O'Horten"


Be forewarned: "O'Horten" is not for everyone.

I don't mean to sound elitist, but if you're the type of person who simply must have non-stop action in every minute of your movies; if you can't abide any pregnant pauses or contemplative lulls; if you despise reading subtitles or experiencing foreign cultures -- in other words, if you thought this summer's "Star Trek" and "Transformers" flicks were the height of cinematic excellence -- then this dour little Norwegian film is not going to be for you.

But if you appreciate a slow-moving but thoroughly adult film-going experience, then the modest pleasures of "O'Horten" might be worth a look.

Writer/director Bent Hamer has focused his story on a single man, and a few pivotal days of his life. It's easy to be a pivotal day in the life of Odd Horten, since for the past 40 years he has been a train engineer shuttling commuters along the same rail lines, over and over.

To say that Horten is a creature of habit is to presume that he has ever thought of doing anything else. Every day he arises, irons his clothes, and drives a train from Oslo to an outlying station. There he spends the night at the same bed-and-breakfast, takes his meals from the same woman, before returning along the same route the next day.

Horten even lives in a tiny apartment next to a train line, so the sound of his occupation is never far away. All of his friends, if you can call them that, are also engineers. Horten does not really care for socializing.

As the film begins, Horten is forced to be at the one place he does not enjoy being: The center of attention. That's because his fellow engineers are throwing him a retirement party. At 67, he has reached mandatory retirement age, and must give up his life of habit.

But life has its little surprises. For Horten, fate keeps throwing chance encounters with various people his way. On the night of his party, he unexpectedly gets locked in a strange family's house while on the way back from a stop at the tobacco shop. Horten sits up with the young boy he has awoken, and ends up missing the rest of his party, and even his train the next day.

Somehow, failing to show up for his last day of work throws Horten into a remarkable tizzy, and his strange encounters multiply. He falls asleep at the spa and decides to go skinny-dipping in the pool, but then two lovers show up for their own nude frolicking. He finds a drunk asleep in the snow-strewn avenue, escorts him home and discovers the man (Espen Skjønberg) to be a career diplomat with an interesting life and wall decorated with African weapons.

(By the way, I should mention that "Odd" is not considered an odd name in Norway, and does not carry any connotation of strangeness. The title is apparently a shortening of his first and last names.)

As Horten is pushed further and further out of his comfort zone, we can see subtle changes in the face of Baard Owe, the actor who portrays him. His handsome, weary face takes on a shine of delight, and a crack of a smile even occasionally emerges from beneath his carefully manicured mustache.

Ultimately, Horten's transformation is not that earth-shattering: A quiet, proud man learns to come out of his shell a little bit. What he will do with his golden years is still a mystery, but at least he's willing to jump into it with both feet instead of waiting for life to happen.

2.5 stars

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