More than making up for its lack of originality with a breathtaking virtuosity of execution, delightful Swedish tragicomedy “Certain People” acerbically observes a group of bourgeois thirtysomethings with self-appointed hipster cred who gather for a birthday meal in the countryside. Though a tad long, this tonally razor-sharp debut by helmer Levan Akin, who co-wrote the screenplay with ace thesp Lisa Ostberg, oozes authenticity and filmmaking savoir-faire, making it something of a mystery that it preemed at Stockholm and Tribeca rather than an A-list festival like Berlin or Cannes. Hilarious navel-gazer should attract arthouse eyeballs in the very demo it lampoons.
Katinka (Mia Mountain) and her overly sensitive hubby, Greger (Ludde Hagberg), have invited some friends to their idyllically situated summer house for Katinka’s birthday. The gathering includes confident gallery owner David (Aron Flam) and his pregnant wife, the quiet-seeming Anna (Anitha Schulman); insecure documaker-turned-sculptor Carro (Ulrika Ellemark); and sharp-tongued Jossan (Ostberg), who recently released a single even though she doesn’t aspire to be a singer.
It’s clear from the get-go that the shindig will be closer to a meeting of Neurotics Anonymous than a successful dinner party — and that’s before the unexpected arrival of Katinka’s unreliable twin brother, Joel (Fredrik Lundqvist), and his new g.f., Linda (Yohanna Idha), a blonde bombshell whose innate vapidity is perfect for her job as a TV gameshow host.
Divided into chapters (“Entrees,” “Dessert,” “Drinks” … ), the pic just barely establishes the image these privileged folk have of themselves as bohemian free spirits before Akin starts to peel away the layers of courtesy and decorum. Linda tests everyone’s patience with her commoner behavior — mixing red and white wine to make her own rose is the least of her faux pas — and abundant alcohol lowers everyone’s inhibitions and capacity to put up with accusations and lies.
What makes “Certain People” stand out is its confidence of tone, which allows auds to observe these egocentric characters without condescension or self-pity, as well as to laugh at their slightly surreal yet always very human behavior — a tricky balance Akin maintains until the somewhat protracted closing scenes.
The rookie helmer, a vet of Swedish TV, uses all the cinematic tools at his disposal to generate laughs and character insight, often simultaneously. In lieu of reaction shots, the camera frequently lingers on whomever has just said something unbecoming, making the dialogue not about the reactions of those spoken to (as in traditional comedies) but about the intentions of the speakers and the effect their verbal missives have on themselves. This is entirely appropriate for a film about well-educated, self-obsessed people with a habit of assigning blame to others, even though, deep down, they’re aware where the fault lies.
Editing is employed to insightful effect, with continuity and ellipses occasionally reflecting emotional states rather than objective logic. Visual punchlines are achieved through snappy cutting, such as in a shot/reverse shot sequence in which Jossan’s silent obsession with cakes in the background is more telling (and mirthful) than anything the two characters loudly arguing in the foreground have to say.
Acting is uniformly strong, though newcomer Ellemark deserves special mention as Carro, who, with her Louise Brooks ‘do, black-rimmed glasses and bright red lipstick, not only looks but also completely nails the part of a woman so afraid to commit and fail that she’ll half-heartedly try just about anything.
Linus Rosenqvist’s widescreen lensing bathes the countryside in lush greens, golden yellows and bright whites before the onset of darkness, while the jazzy score, heavy on percussion, adds another layer of surface respectability. Akin’s Georgian origins are nicely saluted in a hilarious toasting ceremony; Swedish title literally means “Katinka’s Party.”