The appeal of foreign movies often rests not so much in the story as the environment in which that story takes place. Good ones paint a portrait “ either intentionally or unintentionally “ of the time and place it represents, leaving viewers with a sense of what it was like to exist there.
“O’ Horten,” which takes place in Oslo, Norway, doesn’t have a compelling, action-packed plot, but it does create that sense of cultural and physical space that leaves one wanting to know more about other parts of the world and how the basics of human existence might differ there.
The spare story arc follows Odd Horten (Baard Owe), beginning on his last day as a railroad engineer. He has reached the retirement age of 67, and will make his last run after 40 years on the job. A bachelor, his solitary life is regimented by his work schedule: Each morning, he makes coffee, feeds and covers his pet bird, drives the train, eats in the same restaurant and then goes home, ready to do it all again the next day.
Naturally, train symbolism abounds. The opening features a series of shots from the train’s windshield as it first plunges into a dark tunnel, then back out into blinding, snow-reflected sunlight, and then back into darkness again. The metaphor is that of life itself: As we travel through the dark tunnels of change, who knows where we’ll come out?
For Horten, the tunnel is dark but relatively straightforward. He is constantly moving, but always in the same straight lines. After his final run, his schedule becomes disjointed, leaving him at loose ends. It’s winter in Oslo, and he finds himself wandering through a snowy, dripping, fog-filled near-permanent night. He falls asleep in random places, waking up at times in which he doesn’t belong.
In his wanderings, Horten meets people he knows but doesn’t remember knowing, finds that friends have died while he wasn’t looking, visits his catatonic mother, and randomly takes up with strange men who think napping on the sidewalk and driving blindfolded are amusing diversions.
Again, while Horten and the other characters are likable and their low-tension story is fairly compelling, their environment is at least equally interesting. Oslo takes on a slow, dusky dream feeling “ a quiet place in which the denizens are at the mercy of the weather and the wintertime darkness. People seem to wander without a set schedule or destination, with the city never fully shutting down or opening up.
Director Bent Hamer, who helmed 2005’s “Factotum,” also wrote the film. Unlike with “Factotum,” he creates an effective symbiosis between his setting and characters. While the Los Angeles and characters of “Factotum” came off as self-absorbed and pretentious, the denizens of “O’ Horten”‘s Oslo move and belong within their city, especially when they feel they don’t belong anywhere at all.