Mark Twain famously remarked that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. Bent Hamer’s O’Horten suggests that the saddest movie you’ll ever see could be a comedy from Norway. And it’s not exactly warm, either.
In its oblique way, O’Horten explores the identity crisis faced by 67-year-old train engineer Odd Horten (Bård Owe) upon his mandatory retirement. Early scenes establish Horten as a creature of habit — not a social butterfly. He seems content to live alone and spend his hours piloting trains through snowy Scandinavian landscapes with only his pipe for company.
Retirement discombobulates him, and to his shame, a series of unfortunate events make him miss his final assignment. The bulk of O’Horten observes the wry but morose protagonist over a series of disconnected episodes. Frequently, the scenes involve minimal dialogue, and culminate with Horten’s embarrassment or withdrawal, comparable to the misadventures of Jacques Tati or Mr. Bean. Hamer’s use of snowy locations, burnished interiors, and formal compositions feels akin to Coen brothers’ films like Fargo.
Some of the incidents build to laugh-out-loud resolutions, such as Horten’s attempt to enter a building by climbing construction scaffolding, only to find himself trapped all night in a child’s room. At another point, he wanders an airport in a wild-goose-chase attempt to find a friend, suggesting that elderly train engineers may have no place in hubs of 21st-century transportation. More bittersweet scenes suffuse the film with melancholy, including Horten’s visits to his senile mother and, later, the recently widowed manager of his favorite tobacco store. Without work to occupy himself, Horten has no distraction from thoughts of death, decline, and the likelihood that he wasted his life.
Bearing a slight resemblance to contemporary Christopher Plummer, Owe puts just enough of a twinkle in Horten’s eye to keep the film from succumbing to grief. Nevertheless, its poky pace gives you too much time to wonder if O’Horten will add up to anything. Hamer’s previous film Factotum had a similar picaresque quality as it followed Matt Dillon through the seedy routine of a Charles Bukowski-esque writer. Instead, O’Horten ends on an upbeat note that lacks the kind of revelation to justify the script’s apparent randomness. O’Horten offers the sort of trip that seems to take too much time to span too little distance, but at least it offers some amusing stops along the way.