A graceful but overcautious rendering of a well-known 1912 Swedish novel by author Hjalmar Söderberg, “A Serious Game,” from actor-turned director Pernilla August, with a screenplay by “An Education” director Lone Scherfig, contains shades of Ibsen, and faint echoes of Ingmar Bergman‘s less experimental films, without ever achieving the piercing insights and intimate authenticity of those touchpoints. But the somewhat familiar tale of ruinous extramarital passion is elevated by the film’s visual restraint — a cool Nordic palette of creams and pale grays framed in Academy ratio — and the solid performances from actors unafraid to commit to their frequently unlikeable characters. August’s deliberate pacing and formal simplicity add thematic layers too: seldom has ungovernable passion seemed more premeditated, meaning that where often this sort of love story often has a kind of exculpatory tone (It was out of my hands! It was Destiny! It was True Love!) “A Serious Game” never makes excuses for its characters. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
Arvid (Sverrir Gudnason) and Lydia (Karin Franz Körlof) meet when they are both young, single, and unencumbered by anything more oppressive than a spirited desire to make their own mark on the world. Lydia is the daughter of well-respected landscape painter, who lives an unsophisticated lifestyle in an isolated cottage on a lake, a situation from which Lydia longs to escape. Arvid, the newly hired copy editor for a Copenhagen newspaper comes to visit the house one day, tagging along with his editor (Michael Nykvist, wonderful as always). The attraction between the two young people is immediate, and told in breathy little details of glances and wisps of hair and hands grazing on the keys of a piano, artfully spackled with what looks like decades of paint spatter. Before it all gets too precious, however, Arvid declares his love for Lydia, but almost in the same breath explains he cannot marry her due to lack of wherewithal. Despite their feelings, they agree to part and leave their love unconsummated.
This pragmatism might seem to go against the accepted grain of the naive impetuousness of youth, but August does a good job of making it seem oddly logical, especially for these two self-centered creatures. Their decision to part despite powerful attraction seems at least partly predicated on an equally naive assumption that, having located their own capacities for wild love, passionlessness is inconceivable, even in the absence of its natural object.
Years later, however, passionlessness is a fact of both their lives. Lydia has married well, to the stiff older Roslin (Sven Nordin) and has a young daughter; Arvin’s family life seems more fulfilling, largely due to the lovely lightness with which Liv Mjönes, possibly the film’s underserved MVP, plays his wife Dagmar. But the comforts of stability evaporate following a chance encounter at the opera (again those pesky wisps of hair are at least partially to blame), and this time, the affair becomes torridly sexual: “How could I have lived my life never having given myself to you?” sighs Lydia.
Apparently the bolder and more forthright of the two (and also the more tremulously self-involved, despite her awareness of the double standard to which she, as a woman, is held) Lydia asks Roslin for a divorce, which he grants on the condition that she no longer can see her daughter. Arvid, in the meantime, contrives to send his family away on vacation without him, and spends an idyllic period with Lydia until news that his father is dying curtails their summer of love, and everything starts to get a bit ragged.
The story is hardly an unfamiliar one. In fact, it’s almost archetypal in is classicism, at times summoning “Madame Bovary,” at others, “Anna Karenina.” But Lydia is not quite the tragic heroine of those stories: while her choices do make her unhappy, she has, as her defining trait, a kind of pugnacious independence and changeability that makes her spikily, believably real (as opposed to the “Betty Blue“-ish fantasy creature of untrammeled sexuality and instability she could have been), but also terminally hard to root for. We’re all for complicated, non-saintly female protagonists, especially in the often airless confines of the period drama, but it’s hard to see it as anything but a flaw that we care so little about the central love affair. Except to observe that the misguided and impulsive Lydia and the relatively milquetoast Arvid probably deserve each other, if for no other reason that it would take them out of the orbit of other, better people.
August, however, in concert with Scherfig’s unfussy script, certainly makes her own fascination with this story felt, in every carefully composed frame, in every period-authentic interior, in every snap and hook on her leading lady’s corset (the sheer length of time it takes to get Lydia divested of her armor-like layers of clothing would probably cool all but the most ardent of ardors.) But though her thoughtful and clear-eyed style makes “A Serious Game” an impeccably controlled affair, it cannot quite inject any real urgency into the story. Why, exactly, does the world need this movie right now? What is it telling us, with such fine craft and good taste, that we haven’t heard many times before?
Not only does it fail to bring any particularly new insights to the immaculately set table, it ultimately concludes on a deflatingly conservative note that suggests that all the pain that has been visited on so many innocent bystanders is somehow okay because it has brought these two selfish characters to a new understanding of their priorities in life. The music swells (which is at least a relief from an irritatingly overused tinkly piano motif), and the two lovers mutually acknowledge that the fires that once so consumed them are now burnt out. Pretty and sensitive and delicate as porcelain, it’s a shame that as far as hard-fought wisdom goes, “A Serious Game” offers up nothing less cliche than, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Maybe they should all just stop taking themselves, and this game, quite so seriously. [B-]