Odd Horten (Bard Owe) knows who he is and what he does. He's a driver for the train, and has spent so many years on the same route that he knows it instinctively; he has his work, he has his life. But in Bent Hamer's O' Horten, which played in the Un Certain Regard selection this year at Cannes (and has since been picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics), Horten has to face the fact that his life, as he knows it, is changing; he's hit retirement age, and he simply has no clue what to do next.
Hamer's earlier films had a finely-tuned capacity for observation, perhaps best demonstrated in Eggs (1995) and Kitchen Stories (2003); Hamer's English-language debut, Factotum (2005), took the boozy, woozy prose of Charles Bukowski and put a little air and space in it, turning the alcohol-fueled anger of Bukowski's words which, on the page, hit like a shot of cheap whiskey and turning them into something smoother and finer with the smooth burn of regret going down. In O'Horten, Hamer's back in Norway, and still crafting careful, considered portraits of day to day life, but ones which nonetheless have a deadpan comedy to them, a careful and humane sense of the absurd. Much like fellow Scandanavian Aki Kaurismaki, Hamer's got a perfectly straight-faced, slow-burn comedic sensibility; unlike Kaurismaki, Hamer keeps things real. When Horten's farewell dinner concludes in a salute from his fellow engineers -- complete with "Choo-Choo" noises and arm motions -- we're smiling, not sneering, because it's as sincere as it is silly. And later, as Horten goes out into the Norwegian night to walk about -- for lack of anything better to do -- his adventures and encounters are funny and warm and human and possible, which makes them all the more funny.
Hamer also has a secret weapon in his leading man; Owe has a warm demeanor; you can tell he smiles easily just looking at him, but he also has a capacity for double-takes so meticulously executed you suspect he has some external mechanism, calibrated in thousandths of a millimeter, controlling his eyebrows. Odd Horten is courtly; he's polite; he's a gentleman. He's also a little sad, and a little lost. In other words, like we are a lot of the time. And Owe makes us believe in him, through a combination of silent-comedy styled timing and physical execution coupled with understated line readings where you can hear the play of many emotions in just a few syllables.
Much of O'Horten feels universal -- regrets, embarrassments, coincidences, unexpected pleasures -- but it also feels very Norwegian; it's wintertime, and we get a sense of Oslo's public spaces and private places. O'Horten doesn't have much of a plot, but then again, if you asked most people for the three-act structure of the day they're having (or the life they're living) I doubt they'd give you much of an answer. O'Horten is a smaller film, a slice of life, but it's so well-done -- so generous and smart and funny and sympathetic -- that it completely wins you over.