Review Date: 5-23-09
Release Date: 5-22-09 (USA, limited)
Runtime: 90 min.
Costume Designer: Anne Pedersen
I just didn’t have the stomach to see a big blockbuster film this week, so I opted for something different: a Norwegian film called O’Horten. Strange title, considering it’s not a Scottish film, and there are no Scots in the film at all. It is, however, Norwegian, and as we Swedes always say, anything Norwegian is automatically upside-down and backwards, ha ha ha. O’Horten was the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film submission from Norway, and it is a delightful, albeit incredibly slow-moving film. I really enjoyed the story, as well as the film’s themes and perspectives. O’Horten is quite minimalist, and it is totally deadpan, so it is a nice change of pace (literally) from the blockbusters. The costumes were essential in telling the story, and that makes me very happy.
Odd Horten (Bård Owe) is a 67-year-old Oslo train engineer, begrudgingly forced into age-compulsory retirement. The film chronicles his coming to terms with life after he retires. On the surface, this seems like an easy enough story, but the plot thickens as he encounters people along the way who flesh out his back-story and personality. Our understanding of him deepens as the film becomes more complicated, and in the end, we cheer for his victory.
We first meet Horten as he packs a box lunch in his apartment. Trains clamor by, running on tracks right outside his window. Horten lives alone in an austere apartment, decorated with old (but barely-worn) 1960s furniture and a few Bing and Gröndahl plates on the wall. Decoration and beauty are clearly not priorities in Horten’s life, though the plates speak to something else, a long-forgotten female presence in the home. Here, when we meet Horten, he is wearing his train conductor’s uniform. He puts on his heavy leather outer coat, with shoulder board epaulets denoting his rank. He dons his round-crown engineer’s hat, and he heads out for work with his lunch.
Horten quietly drives the train though bleak, snow-blown Norwegian fields to the town of Bergen. It is wintertime, and on average that means only five to eight hours of sunlight per day. He arrives in Bergen in the darkness, and walks through the pouring rain to a pension, where Svea (Henny Moan), the concierge, awaits him.
Svea, dressed in a light blue sweater-set and long grey skirt with clunky shoes, has known Horten for some time, it seems, and she asks him what he will do in his upcoming retirement. She serves him dinner in the small kitchen. Svea is nearly Horten’s age, and we get the impression that she cares for him a great deal. Horten tells her that after his last conducting trip to Bergen, he will fly back home to Oslo. “Fly?!” she asks, incredulous. Horten smiles. “Fly.”
Cut to: Horten ironing his uniform methodically, using a pressing cloth. Pressing cloth! We see Horten at his retirement dinner, surrounded by fellow train engineers, all of them male. They all wear their uniforms: crisp white shirts with shoulder boards, navy blue neck ties, navy blue pants. They salute Horten, and offer him a trophy with a miniature silver train on top. Horten, ever reluctant to receive attention, lights his pipe and observes the party games (name that train – based on a recording of the whistle sound, etc.).
The engineers move the party to an Oslo apartment under construction. Horten, needing tobacco, makes a detour and finds he can’t get in to the building, as the code box is broken. He climbs the scaffolding on the building instead, letting himself in to someone’s apartment through their window. He is caught trying to exit the apartment by a very cute six-year-old boy named Nordahl (Peder Anders Lohne Hamer) in light blue pajamas. The boy holds Horten hostage by threatening to wake up the house with his drum playing. All he wants is for Horten to sit by his bed until he falls asleep. Horten tenderly but reluctantly complies, falling asleep himself and missing his own party.
Horten awakes the next morning, the day that would be his last train-conducting mission to Bergen. He runs to the station, only to see that the train is pulling away from the tracks. He has missed the last undertaking of his career. The man who has run his life on a schedule finds himself suddenly bereft of purpose.
The pursuant dark day is spent lying on his twin bed, fully clothed, not answering the phone, and calling to check in on his senile mother, Vera (Kari Loland). The next day, Horten goes to see her (it is kind of unclear if she is in a nursing home or what, exactly), and he still wears his conductor’s uniform. It is as if he does not know who to be, if not an engineer. The rest of the world moves forward, and Horten finds himself at a strange pit stop, watching the traffic bustle by without him.
He calls a man named Flo and says that he wants to sell his boat. Horton goes to the Oslo airport to talk to Flo (Bjørn Floberg), an SAS airlines baggage handler, but finding the man is difficult. Horten wanders the airport in his train conductor’s uniform, a relic among new technology. He waits on the tarmac for Flo, and lights up his pipe – fire on the tarmac – a huge no-no. Security is called, and he is strip-searched. We see he wears plain white long johns underneath his uniform. Horten looks poignantly boyish and vulnerable standing in his stocking feet wearing white long johns, being searched by a handsome young airport security guard. Strangely, Horten doesn’t seem to mind the humiliation.
Flo is found, finally, and Horten takes him out to look at the boat. As Flo is writing down the details about the boat, named Vera in a nod to his mother, Horten reconsiders. He tells Flo that he is going to the men’s room, and heads out to sit in the boat. The deal is off. He goes home and searches his pipe rack for an appealing pipe to use, tries a few, and then rips the rank insignias from his leather jacket’s epaulets.
Horten goes to the tobacco store, in search of his friend, the tobacconist. He is greeted by the man’s wife, who runs the store. He inquires about his tobacconist friend, and the wife tells Horten that he’s dead. She helps Horten find a new pipe.
Cut to: Horten wearing nothing but a towel, in the steam room of his local recreation center. The lights are methodically turned off in the building; everyone has gone home and Horten is in the building now, after hours, by himself. He slinks into the swimming pool area, drops the towel and swims nude, exposed, unprotected in the huge pool. To his surprise, he is joined at the pool by a couple of unexpected naked lovers, and silently escapes the pool unnoticed in the dark.
Horten puts his clothes back on in the dimly lit locker room, to find that his shoes are nowhere to be found. He exits the gym wearing ladies high-heeled boots. As he walks home, he encounters an older man lying on the sidewalk; it appears that he is drunk and can’t get up. Horten offers to get him a cab to his house, and the two of them arrive at a beautiful home.
The man, Trygve Sissener (Espen Skjønberg), is well dressed, wearing a tweed cap, blue shirt, and camel-colored coat. Over whiskey, they talk about their trades – Sissener explains that he is a diplomat (Africa, Indochina), and Horten (stretching the truth, mired in denial) tells Sissener he is a train engineer. Sissener goes off to take a shower to warm up. Horten inspects the African hunting weapons and ancient implements of war in the home. Sissener returns, wearing a black shirt and an emerald green silk robe. He tells Horten about his brother, Steiner, who has schizophrenia. He tells Horton the story of a meteor fragment, another artifact in the house. Sissener tells Horten that the meteor fragment was formed and travelling before earth was even a planet, before the sun was even the sun; that it is older than the earth. Horten remarks that the meteor had an awfully long journey to wind up in Sissener’s house. Sissener simply replies, “The journey has not ended here”.
Horten notices an antique pair of wooden skis on the wall, and Sissener explains that his father had been a ski jumper. Horten notes that his own mother had been a ski jumper, too, but she couldn’t compete in jumping because she was a woman, and that was unfair. Horten explains that he felt that he had always let her down, because he himself never got into ski jumping. Horten then tells Sissener that his dad jumped, too – jumped, meaning left the family.
Sissener tells Horten that he has always had the special ability to navigate the world with his eyes closed – he could even drive blind. He asks Horten if he would like to take a blind drive, and Horten says yes. Sissener gives Horten a new pair of men’s boots to wear, and (along with the dog) they get in the car, an old Citroën. Sissener pulls his knit cap down over his face, and they take off through the streets of Oslo, narrowly avoiding a collision with a police car. The Citroën rolls to a stop on the side of the road.
Sissener is unresponsive. Horten pulls the hat up, and it is clear that Sissener is dead. Horten turns off the car, gets the dog out of the backseat, and walks away. The police arrive and find Sissener. For a moment, Horten watches from a distance, and then walks home with the dog.
We then see Horten at the train depot, eyeing the trains with a look that makes you think he wants to take one on an unscheduled joyride. He goes to the neighborhood bar, still wearing his train conductor’s uniform. It’s going to be freezing rain tonight, says the man at the next urinal in the bathroom (a weather caster we’d seen previously on TV). Things get surreal as Horten sees a rider-less motorcycle careening down an icy hill as he leaves the bar, followed by an elderly man dressed in a suit with a briefcase, skidding down the slick, icy hill on his bum.
Horten arrives at home. He opens the door to a room we haven’t seen before. It looks like it was his mother’s room before she became unable to care for herself. He looks through her belongings, extracts something. Goes to Sissener’s home, removes the antique wooden skis from the wall. Takes the meteorite. As he leaves the house, the old Citroën pulls up, driven by a handsome, big, professional-looking man. It’s Steiner. And he’s not crazy. Soon it becomes clear that Trygve Sissener was actually the brother afflicted with schizophrenia, not Steiner. Steiner is the diplomat, not Trygve.
Horten continues to walk with the skis. He climbs up the stairs to a majestic old ski jump with a breathtaking view of nighttime Oslo. He has a dream-like moment of his mother, in her younger days, clipping skis to her boots, and taking off down the ramp, whoosh. With the meteor in his pocket, he clips the skis on his boots, lowers the goggles (borrowed from his mother’s belongings), and launches himself into the lights of Oslo.
Cut to: a train, emerging from a tunnel into bleak, snow-blown fields. The train cuts a sharp line through the snow. We end as we begin. Inside the train, Horten rides in the conductor’s cab, this time in the jump seat. He is wearing a blue plaid shirt, a navy v-neck sweater, and a tan corduroy jacket. Sissener’s dog is at his side, and he carries a small suitcase with him. He is smiling and enjoying himself.
Horten disembarks the train and is greeted on the platform by Svea, wearing a lovely tweed coat, light blue turtleneck sweater and grey pants. She smiles warmly, and we understand that Horten has embraced his new life, a life without constraints of routine. His suitcase tells us that he may be in Bergen for more than a short trip (presumably in Svea’s company). The end.
The great thing about this film is that even the most obtuse audience member will be able to understand the correlation between costume and story. Horten wears his conductor’s uniform because it’s all he knows of himself. He has forgotten what it is to be anything else. After the loss of his job, the death of his friend the tobacconist, and the wise teachings of a new friend (who then promptly dies), Horten comes to realize that the only thing holding him back from enjoying life, and exploring its endless possibilities is Horten himself. Flying off the ski ramp liberates him, and from that moment on in the film, he wears civilian clothing, garments reflective of his freedom. He is no longer stuck in the uniform of duty and service. He is free.
The other characters in the film are interestingly attired vis-à-vis their color schemes. The boy in the apartment (Nordahl): blue pajamas. In the morning when Nordahl is having breakfast with his family, they wear blue and white as well. His older brother wears a classic Norwegian fisherman’s sweater, navy with white stitching. Svea consistently wears blue. Sissener wears a blue shirt. In the end, Horten wears blue as well. It seems plausible that the lessons he learned from his various teachers (represented by the color blue) are brought to the surface on Horten once his education is complete – ? Might be a stretch, but I don’t think so. Horten’s new silhouette is soft, colorful and textured. He is a changed man, and all of those people helped him to achieve it.
I really loved this movie, as it explores mature themes, existential themes that are often overlooked and unexplored in regular, run-of-the-mill movies. The many themes in this film – who am I if not my profession, isolation in the modern world, loneliness unrecognized and unchecked, the slow destruction of old age, courage to cast aside the mundane and try new things, the meaning of life, how do you fill emptiness – in the end add up to a beautiful look at what it means to live.
O’Horten is not unlike the film About Schmidt, thematically. But where About Schmidt was a fairly commercial venture (a compelling movie with knockout performances, don’t get me wrong), O’Horten is very thought provoking in its minimalism and in the silence between the lines. It’s not a commercial film, in the sense that About Schmidt was. And that’s just exactly what I was looking for this week. I was definitely the only person in the theater under the age of 60, but I saw the film on a weekday, so that’s probably not the best time to evaluate the demographic of the film. I think that most people will be able to relate to the thematic elements beautifully explored in this film. And yes, they might even be able to perceive the costume magic helping to tell the story.
I don’t think I’ve ever used so many umlauts and slashed Os in any essay in my entire life. It might be Norwegian, but O’Horten is not upside-down or backwards. It’s a lovely film and I hope that you can see it in the theater – it is subtitled and slow moving, so seeing it on DVD might compromise some of its charm. Enjoy!