O'Horten is one of the most beautifully photographed films I've seen all year, and it's ceaselessly entertaining as well—which is a bit of a shock, considering it's a Norwegian movie about a reticent, 67-year-old railroad engineer. I mean, don't get me wrong; listening to Norwegians not talk about the railroad is one of my favorite things, but I wasn't sure it could sustain a 90-minute film.
But it does. Writer/director Bent Hamer, whose name makes him sound like he's the star of a Norwegian fetish-porn video, made the reasonably decent Factotum a few years ago, but there's nothing in that film to prepare one for the visual delights of O'Horten. Every shot is perfectly framed. Swathes of gray and white are punctuated by tiny bits of color. And within the frame, the movement is perfectly placed to create the exact effect that would have occurred if Edward Hopper had made looping, animated .gifs instead of paintings.
Often, a single figure will move against the stark background, creating a weird, comic effect that is nonetheless compositionally strong throughout the movement. At one point, the railman, Odd Horten, is clinging desperately to a lamppost during an ice storm. The street in front of him slopes down at a dangerous angle. A man lying down beneath a toppled motorcycle slides smoothly down the street, coming for a moment under the glare of the lamplight before fading out of the frame.
It's something of a metaphor for Horten's life: He's always wanted to be a ski-jumper, just like his mom and, apparently, 96 percent of Norwegians. However, he was too frightened, and instead clung to his job as a railman, his position as a bachelor, and his favorite pipe.
But then he retires, and strange things occur around him. He's accidentally locked out of his retirement party, and in trying to return, climbs through the window of a random apartment where he's held hostage by a 7-year-old boy. He attempts to sell his boat, and winds up standing alone on the runway at the Oslo airport, where he's found by security and then searched in a most personal manner. And somehow, he finds himself in the passenger seat as an eccentric inventor drives blindfolded through icy city streets.
The quiet lead performance by Baard Owe is perfect. It's nice to see an older man get a chance to act where he's not simply a comic exaggeration of the zany senior citizen. It'd be even nicer if older women actors got some roles like that, but then it'd also be nice if all the world's peoples would lay down their weapons and just hug each other.
So meanwhile, there's this to enjoy. Plus—and this is a real departure from American films—Odd has something of a crush on a woman, and the woman he has feelings for is not young enough to be his second wife's daughter. Instead, she's his age, and even looks like she's his age, in a respectable, aging-gracefully sort of way. Even weirder, she's played by an actress who is actually the same age as the actor who plays Odd. Which is freakish, because, as an American, I expect all older women in movies to look like either young women wearing old-lady makeup, or some Dr. Frankenstein version of an undead bikini model. And yet, Henny Moan, who plays Odd's love interest, Svea, just looks like a healthy human being. Which is cheering.
But this is mostly a film about Odd and his encounters with other men—weird, Norwegian men who sit in the middle of carefully framed scenes and sip soup or beer and say little. In that way, O'Horten is most reminiscent of the films of Aki Kaurismäki, but it replenishes Kaurismäki's sometimes painfully dry comedy with a bit of moisture. There's real sentiment in Odd's attempt to find something to do after retirement, but the sentiment never becomes schmaltzy, because of the distancing effect of Owe's stoic performance.
Unfortunately, the final scene is a bit of a copout; the film should have ended a minute earlier, in a glorious shot from the top of an icy stadium, the night sky black and glittering above. It's one of a dozen incredible images that take this film from merely being an amusing and occasionally silly comedy into the realm of higher art.