‘Loveable’ Review: A Norwegian Marital Drama That Keeps Our Sympathies in Flux

Wounded by the breakdown of her first marriage, a young mother of two meets a kind, handsome, charismatic new man and — after a protracted but ultimately successful romantic pursuit — learns to believe in love once more. This would be the complete arc of many a crowd-pleasing romcom or relationship drama. In “Loveable,” however, it merely fills the opening minutes, taking us to the title card on a wave of upbeat pop and sun-washed lensing. And then the story really begins, as Norwegian writer-director Lilja Ingolfsdottir’s unusual, intelligent marriage story wonders what happens when a second chance goes the way of the first, and who, if anyone, is to blame. Even after that buoyant, wrongfooting intro, however, the film has several further tonal shifts and narrative redirections up its sleeve.

What initially appears to be a fraught domestic two-hander becomes a more intensive solo character study, as Maria (Helga Guren) is forced into a painful process of self-examination when her second husband Sigmund (Oddgeir Thune) retreats from her. Does she push people away, or is it everyone else not meeting her in the middle? “Loveable” takes a continually surprising approach to characterization, risking easy audience sympathy for the sake of human truth — the title is loaded, even ironic.

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While the script sometimes veers into heavily underlined therapy-speak, Guren’s emotionally intrepid lead performance keeps things credible and compelling. Premiering in the main competition at Karlovy Vary, Ingolfsdottir’s first feature after a lengthy shorts career ought to score with any upscale arthouse viewers who admired recent Norwegian smash “The Worst Person in the World” (with which it shares producer Thomas Robsahm) but were past the point of relating to its heroine’s quarter-life crisis.

When Maria, then a new divorcée, first lays eyes on dashing musician Sigmund, she’s determined to have him. He isn’t as instantly smitten, but eventually succumbs to her quietly confident advances, and their heady affair is vaulted into marriage when she falls pregnant. Seven years later, however, things haven’t worked out quite so neatly. Now a harried mother of four, Maria is struggling with her kindergarten-age son’s behavioral problems, while her teenage daughter Alma (Maja Tothammer-Hruza) treats her with scalding hostility. Sigmund, once-beloved by her older children and a doting dad to the two they share together, is now absent on work trips for weeks on end — a situation necessitated by the stasis of Maria’s own career. (What exactly that is is a curious blind spot in Ingolfsdottir’s script.) After a particularly lousy day of kids acting out and credit cards being declined, you can’t begrudge her letting off some steam when Sigmund returns cheerily from his latest travels.

Maria’s is a plainly sympathetic position that will get a wince of recognition from many parents who have experienced unequal childcare division. Yet audiences may be more divided — and not entirely across gender lines — by the vituperative fury she brings to the couple’s arguments, escalating even a low-stakes dispute over laundry-folding into nuclear territory, and suggesting the couple’s marital problems may be more deeply rooted in matters of personality. Sigmund, increasingly hollowed out by this state of constant tension, suggests she seek anger-management treatment; she retaliates by proposing a trial separation, only to immediately regret doing so when he calls her bluff.

What ensues is a fairly forensic psychological study, as they enter couple’s counseling with a patient, perceptive therapist (Heidi Gjermundsen Broch) — only for the increasingly drawn, checked-out Sigmund to withdraw from the sessions entirely, leaving a nervy Maria to confront long-ignored patterns in her personal history. Does she attract conflict or cause it? Does she seek partners to avoid seeing herself? Away from the couch, a rare visit to her mother (a superb, softly bruised Elisabeth Sand) places things further in perspective, as they proceed from passive-aggressive nostalgia to bitter recriminations in a matter of minutes — unrolling a clear blueprint for Maria’s dysfunctional relationship with Alma.

There’s a harsh, briny tang to Ingolfsdottir’s writing in such scenes, with the film’s most authentic confrontations leaving all concerned parties — not to mention the audience — worse for wear. Nobody wins in the ever more brittle negotiations between Maria and Sigmund: We feel equally for her loneliness and his need for space and silence, while his recessive resistance to communication is as frustrating as her undisciplined emotional spillage. Thune does a fine job of etching in the unspoken baggage beneath Sigmund’s bluff exterior, but the film is predominantly a showcase for Guren, leaving nothing on the table as she carries Maria from white-hot toxic rage to desolate self-scrutiny to cathartic weeping in a foetal position.

It’s a performance vivid and specific enough to show up the film’s odd moments of unnecessary interior explanation: a too-pat scene where she repeats self-help mantras in the bathroom mirror, a replay in her head of an argument where she replaces her jabs with articulations of “unsafe” feeling, or, in a curious break of perspective, a shot of a subway busker singing a particularly maudlin version of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” “Loveable” needs no such sentimental hand-holding; for its fierce, shattered heroine, learning to hold her own hand is the operative challenge.

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