Life as an early-20th-century artist’s muse proves far less pleasant than it sounds in “Marie Kroyer,” an exquisite-looking but low-pulse period drama that reps helmer Bille August’s first Danish pic in 25 years. Set during the era when the title figure was regarded as the most beautiful woman in Denmark, this depiction of her failing marriage to mentally ill painter P.S. Kroyer, as well as her scandalous affair with Swedish composer Hugo Alfven, is a treat for the eyes that never catches emotional fire. Still, August’s reputation and the tastefully upholstered subject matter could pique fest and distributor interest offshore.
In remote Skagen, a fishing village at the northernmost tip of Denmark, numerous artists gather, attracted by the exceptional light and natural scenery. Among them: renowned painter P.S. Kroyer (Soren Saetter-Lassen, lively), known as Soren, and his wife, Marie (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, an attractive clotheshorse), 16 years his junior and a painter herself. While Soren works on a grand scale, Marie daubs on canvases barely larger than a book.
Marie finds little time to develop her own talent since she must serve as her husband’s favorite model and sometime nurse, as well as homemaker and caring mother to their young daughter, Vibeke. Moreover, Soren casually and cruelly denigrates her work, destroying her dream of a happy life among mutually supportive artists.
Exhausted by Soren’s manic episodes and unable to find comfort in her painting, Marie visits Sweden, where the dashing looks, admiring words and sexual prowess of composer Alfven (Sverrir Gudnason, bland) sweep her off her feet. Since the possessive Soren won’t agree to a divorce, the lovers try a menage a trois in Skagen that soon leads to disaster. But when Marie abandons her life and social status in Denmark to follow her love to his native land, she discovers that Danish laws are not kind to independent-minded women.
As stodgily scripted by Peter Asmussen, the film deals with only a small portion of Marie Kroyer’s life and fudges the dates of actual events; nor does it help that, instead of giving Marie a personality, it grants her only a simple learning curves vis a vis men and her own happiness. Since the real Marie went on to marry again and established a reputation as an interior designer, it seems odd that the film ends on a rather unsatisfactory note, without any onscreen explanation about her future.
By contrast, the stellar craft package pays careful attention to the historical accuracy of visual detail, from costumes to interiors to street scenes. As befits the Skagen setting, talented lenser Dirk Bruel celebrates the Nordic light wherever possible. The shadowed period interiors seem to have been lit only by sources visible in the frame, and many of the exterior compositions echo paintings by the Skagen group and the French impressionists. Stefan Nilsson’s simple piano-and-strings score fits well with the classical music excerpts, including those by Alfven.
The artists’ colony in Skagen was also the subject of the 1997 Swedish pic “Hip Hip Hurrah,” helmed by Kjell Grede.