[Christianity Today Movies; May 14, 2009]
Cast: Baard Owe (Odd Horten), Espen Skjonberg (Trygve Sissener), Ghita Norby (Fru Thorgersen), Henny Moan (Svea), Bjorn Floberg (Flo)
How odd is Odd? When we meet Odd Horten, he is driving the Oslo-Bergen express train through a blue-white snowy landscape. (This opening-credits sequence is gorgeous: each dive into a tunnel, each returning plunge through a circle of searing white, is a cinematic marvel.) But a young railroad employee catching a ride up front with Odd finds that it’s very hard to draw him into conversation. Questions and comments get monosyllabic replies, if any. Why is that?
When we get a good look at Odd’s face, we don’t gather many more clues. You wouldn’t say that this looks like a man wrestling with inner demons. Odd is a healthy-looking 67-year-old, about to retire after spending nearly 40 years driving trains. He doesn’t look depressed or angry, not struggling with some tormenting memory, nothing like that. He’s just silent. What makes him be like this?
Well, it’s because he was written that way. In Odd Horten, Bent Hamer (both director and screenwriter) has given us a character who is taciturn and reserved, and thus an ideal foil for any number of zany incidents. One sequence unfolds this way: Odd falls asleep while taking a sauna, and wakes to discover he is alone inside the closed health club. He uses the opportunity to take a nude swim in the darkened pool. (Terrific photography here, as always: overhead shots of the dark shape of his body slicing through the water above the pool’s turquoise floor.) But then Odd hears laughter, and pops up his head to see a young couple embracing and disrobing for their own midnight swim. He escapes without their notice, but while dressing discovers that his boots have been stolen. In the next shot, Odd is walking down a snowy street in red pointy-toe high-heeled boots. He stops to speak to a drunk lying dangerously near the streetcar tracks, and it’s off to the next adventure.
O’Horten is certainly as good as, or better than, any number of movies organized around quirky main characters. If anything, it rises above the rest thanks to the excellence of its cinematography and lighting, sets and acting. (And how refreshing it is to watch a movie populated entirely by people who look like real people. Not a facelift in a carload.)
And yet—is there a point? The point presented most explicitly is that people should not get stuck in their ways, but always be open to trying something new. You may have seen that theme in a movie before.
I’ll lay out the way the way it developed here, though it gives away a plot point; it’s given away in the trailer anyway. Odd’s mother, Vera, is in a nursing home, and when he visits her we see a photo of her as a young girl holding her skis. We learn that she was a ski-jumper in her youth, though the sport was then largely closed to girls. (Hamer’s own mother was a ski-jumper, and the movie is dedicated “In memory of my mother and all other female ski jumpers.”) Odd later tells another character, Trygve, about his mother’s involvement with the sport. Trygve then asks Odd whether he was a ski-jumper, and he replies, “No. I didn’t dare.” After a pause, he continues, “That disappointed her.”
Given that setup, how likely do you think it is that Odd will later make a midnight climb to the top of the Olympic ski jump and take off? How likely is it that, in reality, he would survive? But in the world of movies, a reserved person who does something daring is always rewarded, and in the closing scenes we see Odd’s life taking a quietly brighter turn.
I’m torn about this movie, because it is artistically of such high quality. It’s not a cold artistry; you can feel how much Hamer dotes on Odd’s character, and savors his droll predicaments. (I was somewhat annoyed with the score, however, which uses a tinkly, tip-toeing celeste to direct our amusement.) This is a movie made with love, and I don’t think it could have been done better. And yet—it’s so inherently contrived. Set up a straw man, an unusually reserved older gentleman, and then throw a number of strange incidents across his path. That story is rigged at both ends. The resolution doesn’t feel like it has organic weight; it doesn’t feel inevitable, or even likely, because everything preceding it has been too blatantly imaginary.
I noticed that the brief early comments by film-festival viewers were running three enthusiastic “Charming!”s to one “Boring.” If you’re open to being enchanted by an eccentric retiree at loose ends, and his oddball experiences, you’ll find company in the former group. But if you lose patience with excess or unwarranted quirkiness, the whole thing could seem like a pointless exercise. It’s all a matter of whether you get on the train.
Talk About It
1. Is it important to keep trying new things? Or is it all right to stick to what you already enjoy, and focus on getting better at it? Why does our culture emphasize gathering new experiences?
2. As you think over the many vivid scenes in this movie—Odd’s retirement party, his night in the little boy’s room, his meal in Svea’s kitchen, his comic dilemma while trying to meet Flo at the airport, his midnight swim, his talk with the tobacconist’s widow, the arrest at the Valkyrie Restaurant, the conversation in Trygve’s red room, the pre-dawn “blind driving”—which had the most impact on you? Were any puzzling, or didn’t seem to fit? Could any have been cut from the movie without changing the course of the story?
3. Why did Odd tell Steiner that he didn’t know where Trygve’s dog was? Was he justified in keeping the dog?
4. Vera, Odd’s mother, is living a quietly unchanging, isolated life in a nursing home, and Odd originally looks headed for the same. What do you think the lives of the elderly were like in Biblical times? Do you think old people should be cared for differently than they are today? What do you hope for your own old age?
The Family Corner
The nude swim scene is brief and tastefully done. One character is an alcoholic, and Odd smokes a pipe. No bad language.