There’s a sensible relationship drama hidden somewhere in Diorama, the new film by Swedish actress-filmmaker Tuva Novotny streaming on Netflix. Her 2018 film Blindspot dealt with the difficult subject of mental illness through the lens of a mother and daughter. Here, in Diorama, the director attempts a playful and wild dissection of monogamous relationships in the modern age. Even if the premise sounds promising, Diorama is undone by its own obstinacy to not let things play out by themselves. Instead, Novotny makes grand statements about love and identity through a series of comparisons with the animal kingdom. Wait for it…we get these sequences, of men and women dressed as animals!
Diaroma begins with an extended sequence that stretches through the history of humankind and how romance and relationships have altered with time. Narrated with a goofy voiceover, it sets the tone a little too indulgent from the beginning. When we meet the principal couple Frida (Pia Tjeltja) and Björn (David Dencik), they can hardly keep their hands off each other. They are madly in love with each other and excited to share their lives together. There is passion and euphoria. Cut to a decade after, with three kids and a full-time job to pay the bills, the fire that once kept their relationship alive is now palpably missing.
Frida and Björn both have different ways of dealing with life and their daily routine. When they are not fatigued by the day’s work, they get to talk, and the difference shows. There is a moving sequence early in Diaroma when both of them ask each other if they are happy with the life they are leading. She asks whether he misses the life they had earlier, not being single, but “free”. He shrugs it off saying “not to complicate” things unnecessarily and takes a break. That’s exactly what she cannot do- escape from life for a couple of days and then return, rather than fixing some aspect of the present life. When they actually do take a break, it turns out to be a disaster.
These scenes that tell us so much about the characters are written and performed with such sensitivity and honesty, that one is left to wonder what went wrong with the rest of the film. The inclusion of the dioramas in between makes things worse – with increasingly annoying attention to scientific facts about sex drive. How does it help? The tendency to spice things up by including these staged actors dressed as animals tends to kill the intensity brought by the actual drama.
It is not funny, but quite the opposite. Diorama would have fared much if it had concentrated more on the protagonists and their struggles than on painting snippets of their arguments and pasting them with colorful costumes of men and women dressed as wild animals. Worse, the animal sex is a major cringe. The situational humor does not add anything substantial to the narrative. I kept on wishing for more time with Frida and Björn so that Diaroma could feel a lot more rounded. But there’s so much Diaroma wants to address, that it turns out to undoing itself in the process.
Diorama is the classic case of a premise that sounds interesting on paper but fails to translate on screen. This is mostly so because the director constantly tries to elevate the material to make it more interesting as a whole. The tonal shifts do not sit well with the narrative. This belies a lack of trust in the story itself, which could have blossomed into a bittersweet portrait of modern parenthood. The performances, particularly from Tjeltja, elevate the film as much as they can.
Novotny sure tries to experiment with the genre with a dash of humor and scientific details about monogamy but this results in an uneven, tedious mess of a film that feels overlong even for its 100-minute runtime. By the end it turns out into a different film altogether, wholly unaware of where it began. The chaotic energy overwhelms and exhausts to such an extent that you cease to care what happens to the couple. Even if Diaroma wants us to care for the people it shows, the film itself doesn’t care for them in the first place.