In an industry where players are frequently unfairly marked down in their prime in favour of younger models, it remains unusual to encounter a film where the average age of the principal cast is 67. In fact, Bent Hamer's fifth feature could be described as the last chance to glimpse some of Norwegian and Danish cinema's most illustrious luminaries. Yet, on its Norwegian premiere, O'Horten was largely met with apathy. Luckily, this leisurely, tragicomical gem found distribution in an additional 40 countries, and so far more Americans alone have seen it than the 32,757 Norwegians who turned up for the film's initial run nearly two years ago.
Its protagonist, the titular Odd Horten, is a 67 year old locomotive engineer employed on the Bergen Line. Horten's set to retire after nearly 40 years of dedicated service. Apparently unwed, the rhythm of his life dictated by train timetables, his time divided nursing his vintage motorboat and visiting the nursing home in which his ailing mother is confined. The sole highlights of Horten's existence seemingly the overnight stays in Bergen, where - having guided his train across the highest and most challenging railway line in Northern Europe - he lodges at a small inn run by an extraordinarily welcoming concierge.
Like many others who've allowed their work to define them, whose job description has become their sole identity, Horten has no clue what to do when no longer required to work. Without his job, his life suddenly seems devoid of meaning and purpose; the dutiful engineer's life derailed. As Horten blunders into retirement, literally missing the last train he's supposed to drive, he finds not only his identity but the environment in which it was anchored dissolving as well. His beloved locomotives off limits, the proprietor of his choice tobacconist suddenly deceased, the chef at his favourite pub arrested by the police, his attempts to settle into a senior's life as haphazard as half-hearted.
Though director Hamer allegedly intended to make a train-themed film, these rail-guided vehicles play a lesser part than the uniforms associated with them, and the identity such uniforms confer onto their wearers. At first, Horten's railwayman's uniform appears to be the only set of clothes he owns. As he stumbles out of the workforce, no longer guided by rails, losing the uniform's accouterments piece by piece, Horten's formally formal attire acquires an even more symbolic function. Hamer lets his protagonist gain insight by experiencing not only a physical death but a symbolic one as well - as he did in his international breakthrough Salmer fra kjøkkenet (Kitchen Stories).
Though the cast, headed by veteran actor Baard Owe in his first leading role as Horten, includes stalwarts Espen Skjønberg, Ghita Nørby (albeit quite briefly), and Henny Moan (coaxed back from recent retirement), only Bjørn Floberg - who also appeared in Salmer ... - may seem familiar to international audiences. The clever cameos of Sámi film director Nils Gaup, weatherman Terje Walløe, and the brief contributions of comedians Trond-Viggo Torgersen and Fredrik Steen will also likely be lost on anyone but recent residents of Norway.
Although Hamer's pensive opus has more in common with Patrice Leconte's Monsieur Hire than Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Le fabuleaux destin d'Amélie Poulain, O'Horten's international success may do for Oslo's legendary "brun kneipe" (brown pub) Valkyrien - not to be confused with the similarly named bistro cafe in the same neighbourhood - what Jeunet's commercial breakthrough did for Paris' Café des 2 Moulins. However, it may take more than appearing in two award-winning films (the first being Petter Næss' Elling) to counter the rather dismal reputation of Valkyrien's kitchen - its food reportedly prepared at a different eatery altogether. (Which may explain the "arrest" of the chef in the film.)
Curiously, for a film about old men contemplating leaps of faith - as do practically all of Bent Hamer's films to date - O'Horten discreetly delivers a sly polemic on gender in sports. Using ski jumping (that particularly Norwegian contribution to downhill antics) as a plot device, Hamer cast Anette Sagen as Horten's mother in her youth. Considered one of the world's best female ski jumpers, Sagen's also known for her clash with the chairman of the International Ski Federation's ski jump committee, Torbjørn Yggeseth, over whether women should be allowed to compete on the highest ski jumps at all. Leaving no doubt as to his own position, Hamer - whose mother was a ski jumper - has one of the film's characters remark "What kind of society would we live in if women weren't allowed to jump?"