Classic literature about consuming passion and destructive adultery has been adapted countless times for the silver screen. And, Swedish author Hjalmar Söderberg’s turn-of-the-century novel, A Serious Game (Den allvarsamma leken), is no exception. Swedish actress-turned-director Pernilla August’s second feature and third big screen makeover of the eponymous novel unspooled in the “Berlinale Special” section of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.
Both Söderberg’s novel and theatre play Gertrud (1907) draw from the author’s own extramarital affair with a certain Maria von Platen, and both have been adapted for the screen over the years, Gertrud in Denmark as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1964 classic and The Serious Game in 1945 by Söderberg’s son-in-law Rune Carlsten, and again in 1977, as Games of Love and Loneliness by the Norwegian director Anja Breien. The 2016 version was penned by Lone Scherfig whose credits include her breakout film, Italian for Beginners and Nick Hornby’s An Education.
The story is an often told one. Boy (Arvid Stjärnblom, a journalist) meets girl (Lydia Stille, an artist’s daughter). They fall madly in love. However, due to scant financial conditions, Arvid and Lydia cannot build their lives together. So, Lydia marries an older, prosperous man and Arvid marries Dagmar, a woman of a wealthy family. But, ten years later, after a chance meeting at the execution of “Carmen” at the Opera, a torrid affair ensues, carrying unintended and unforeseeable consequences on their lives. Arvid and Lydia share a dream of clean, magnificent and pristine love, but the price entails a greater sacrifice than they had imagined. Indeed, Arvid and Lydia are ahead of their time and the freedom they seek has a different price for everyone involved – them and those around them. Because, their little game of love and chance has become a serious affair indeed.
Period pieces about love and consuming passion tend to be stiff, occupying stiffly the screen like a portrait hanging on the on the walls of one of these mansions depicted in one of these films. And yet, this is definitely not the case in Pernilla August’s new interpretation of the aforementioned novel. There is novelty in her approach in the sense that it does not resemble any of the films of the genre, especially the British ones. There is an inherently Scandinavian feel to it as well as a different visual approach in August’s depiction of the era.
The fact that August wanted her audience to really feel the feel and smell of the period is palpable here. In that sense, Anna Asp, an important member of August’s regular team has, once again, created very inspired sets. August and Danish cinematographer Erik Molberg Hansen have chosen to shoot in the old boxy 1.33 aspect ratio, widening the frame only for seasonal transition shots, thus providing A Serious Game with a distinct look. Shooting with handheld cameras is indeed a radical way to shoot a period piece but it also echoes the restlessness of people constantly seizing happiness only to have it slip through their fingers. And, there lies the grittiness of Pernilla August’s approach. In fact, neither Ingmar Bergman nor Bille August would ever use a hand-held camera. But, the inspiration they have provided Pernilla August is tangible and so is the one drawn from Roy Andersson, Bo Widerberg, Per Fly and Andrea Arnold and her version of Wuthering Heights, another adaptation of a timeless classic that plays with the style and genre in a modern way. August has indeed worked with some of the Scandinavian greats but her vision is her own. And, she must be applauded for that.
In that regard, her approach works because of our ability to identify with the emotional drama. Indeed, there are many applicable contemporary aspects here. It is true that certain conditions are distinctly different, such as the position of women in the early 1900s when they were not allowed to vote yet. Scherfig does mention social turmoil as women campaign for their right to vote. This seems to be intended to emphasize and contrast the restraints of Swedish society at the time and the kindling flame within Lydia as she attempts to be in charge of her own destiny, very often careless of the consequences. But, while she does that, the character’s plotline never acquires much topical weight, apart from emerging as a victim of her poor choices. And, that is Scherfig’s predicament here.
As far as the acting is concerned, Karin Franz Körlof (Nobody Owns Me) delivers a raw and poignant performance as Lydia, a woman in the forefront who was probably born some one hundred years too soon. Sverrir Gudnason (Monica Z) gives an equally touching and strong turn as Arvid, who is quite passive in his choices and who takes a long time to get a grip on himself. The supporting cast made up of Michael Nyqvist, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard and Liv Mijönes is uniformly excellent.
Despite its premise sounding like a lewd bodice-ripper, and its deep sadness, A Serious Game remains a deeply gritty, truthful, poignant romantic story of choices and – equally important – non-choice. Definitely, a must-see.