A Serious Game

in 44th Haugesund International Film Festival

by Nils Saeveras

Period dramas will always run the risk of not freeing themselves enough from their literary sources, or becoming as stifling as the social mores of the time period they portray. Pernilla August’s A Serious Game (“Den Allvarsamma leken”) has also faced criticism of this kind. Still, the film has several interesting aspects, not the least to those familiar with the literary source of the film.

A Serious Game premiered at Berlin International Film Festival in February, but was also shown in the section of Nordic films at the recent Norwegian International Film Festival in Haugesund a few months ahead of the release of the film in Norway. Early reception has been mixed. Still, this tale of love in a time of strict social restrictions carries a special significance in Scandinavia.

Based on a novel by Hjalmar Soderberg (1912), the story has been translated to film both in 1945, 1977 and now in 2016. Many of the themes of the story, such as its exploration of marriage as merely a social contract at the beginning of the 20th century, and the double standard in the sexual morality expected of women versus men, had been the subject for dramatists such as Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg only decades before Soderberg’s novel. These dramatists were a clear inspiration for Soderberg when he wrote his story in 1912.

Pernilla August’s adaptation stands on its own, but several interesting comparisons can also be made to the 1977 version of “A Serious Game”, by Norwegian director Anja Breien. In 1977, Scandinavian cinema was still heavily influenced by the French nouvelle vague, and Anja Breien’s version can almost be seen as a companion piece to Francois Truffaut when the filmmaker explores his more literary vein, like in Les deux Anglaises et le continent. Interestingly, a hint of nouvelle vague remains in the 2016 version, even though it drops some of the more outdated devices, such as the voiceover narration. Still, the new version keeps ties to film history by sticking to the now rarely-used 4:3 aspect ratio.

As a director, Pernilla August is, unsurprisingly, at her best when working with actors, herself being one of Ingmar Bergman’s protégés in the early part of her acting career, most memorably in her first film role, as the maid in Fanny and Alexander. Her focus on the acting is well served by the old fashioned format of the film.

A Serious Game portrays the shifting phases in the on/off love story of Arvid and Lydia, shaped by turn-of-the century considerations, and set in a time when class and income determined the proper match, rather than mutual attraction. The young journalist and art critic Arvid feels that he needs a better income and a higher status in society before he can get married. Lydia can’t wait, as her recently diseased father left her no money, and therefore marries an older, wealthier man. Not many years after, Arvid enters a similar marriage of convenience, though a slightly happier one than Lydia’s mere business arrangement.

Ten years later, Lydia and Arvid’s take up their love affair again after a chance meeting. Arvid envisions a future with Lydia but is unable to leave his wife. Lydia soon leaves her husband and child, but she also has relations with other men besides Arvid. The relationship is turbulent, but their forbidden meetings continue.

On the surface this is not a very remarkable story, and the reception following festival screenings has indeed been mixed. In a Scandinavian context though, the film is full of interesting details. The turn of the century was both a cultural high point and also a time of great social shifts in Scandinavia. That conterct is elegantly woven into the story, as in the scene where Arvid is introduced to his entrepreneurial father in-law and the more wealthy man says: “So you’re a journalist. Well, that’s not quite as bad as it used to be”. One wonders what he would have thought about the current state of journalism.

The feel for the society of the time is palpable both in the 1977 and 2016 version. Even so, certain shifts in emphasis between the versions seem to underline the notion that period dramas will mirror the time in which they are made as much as the era portrayed. In the new version, the traumas of losing touch with a child after divorce are explored, something that was entirely omitted in 1977. Also, the women of the story are more fully realized in the new version.

A Serious Game is not exactly breaking new ground. It is still an interesting example of Ingmar Bergman’s continued influence on Scandinavian acting, through directors like Pernilla August, who previously worked with him both in film and theatre. The fact that the main character Arvid is a rather passive figure for the most part poses a challenge for actor Sverrir Gudnason, but that is handled with the minimalist, “less is more” approach of the Bergman school of acting, found also in Karin Franz Körlof’s interpretation of Lydia. While some of the period detail will be mostly appreciated by the home audience, the exquisite acting will hopefully make A Serious Game work internationally as well.

Edited by Brian Johnson