Lilja Ingolfsdottir’s debut feature, “Loveable” (Elskling), has one of the most indelible central performances of the year. I wouldn’t be surprised if it remains the definitive one by the end of the year as well. When a film dives into a woman’s evolving headspace and her journey, with immense self-scrutiny but also a porosity to transcendence, it is a welcome change from being subjected to countless ones that routinely subject its female characters to a stock set of situations doused in syrupy melodrama and unrelenting pain. Ingolfsdottir sensitively guides us through the life of a woman who slowly begins to discover and confront her anxieties and fears. She does veer close to ripping herself apart. It’s an excoriating process we are made to witness but also a singular one where the road from agony to acceptance is delineated with care and sharp attention.

Only the opening of the film is all rapturous and giddy, capturing the swell of love when the 40-year-old Maria (Helga Guren) stumbles across Sigmund (Oddgeir Thune)  at a friend’s party. Maria has had a divorce already, and that she is scrambling to raise her kids is an understatement. On the work front as well, she puts herself in too much, juggling various projects so as to establish some sort of safe ground. However, the minute her glance shifts to Sigmund, she is struck by a curious sensation. She felt like she knew him. Maria even goes up to him and directly tells him how he made her feel despite being at a distance. She is so swept up in her memory of him that Maria actively seeks out and pulls him into a relationship.

The forthrightness of her gaze, almost challengingly inviting him to be with her, is unshakable. It all seems rosy and wonderful until a cut seven years later swiftly establishes the relationship may have run into a dead end. Sigmund is mostly absent, disappearing for weeks due to work commitments. Maria is left alone to fend for a bunch of kids, including those from her earlier marriage. Her daughter is unhesitant to display all signs of outright resentment. Exhaustion is written on Maria’s face. There’s no support she has. Home has no breathing space. It’s an absolute pressure cooker situation. Neither is she able to devote any time to her career. A string of rejections threatens to snuff out the spare remnants of her mental strength.

Loveable (2024) ‘Karlovy Vary’ Movie Review
A still from “Loveable” (Elskling, 2024)

Bitterness has been building up within her for a while, directed towards Sigmund for his free-spirited indulgence in having a full-bodied work life while shoving onto her every other responsibility pertaining to their kids. Things finally erupt into some sort of ultimatum when, on the night, he returns from a long work trip, only to reveal that he will be going away again soon. She is enraged and doesn’t conceal it. They burst into a nasty fight, with her accusing him of emotionally abandoning him and him confessing he is frightened by her rage. She is thoroughly flustered by his audacity to point out it’s she who needs to sort out her issues while he absolves himself of any part in the souring situation. That they may have reached a point where they almost sicken each other couldn’t be more obvious.

As he concedes he needs time and space, she dreads divorce. She begins to live separately. The couple starts going to therapy, albeit even there, he is often in circumstances where he has to excuse himself or skip. While she retains hope in continuing the relationship, he amply indicates he may have grown weary of her. As she waits for his determining decision of staying in or quitting the marriage, Ingolfsdottir’s screenplay bends into fastidiously examining a range of psychological issues Maria has been grappling with but wouldn’t acknowledge. A detour to an episode where Maria is visiting her old mother (a scene-stealing, formidable Elisabeth Sand) turns stiflingly tense and vehement very quickly. Wasn’t Maria demanding herself as a kid? Her mother reminds her, while Maria insists she never recognizes or appreciates her good efforts.

When Maria tells her therapist she may have only a small part to play in the curdling of her marriage, it is precisely this that “Loveable” pivots its penetrative gaze on. There’s a stellar, remarkably attentive swing to Maria fully owning to herself every flickering emotion and unspoken exchange with her husband from the night he returns home, following which they stormed into a fight. As this situation and few others are replayed for us, every passing micro shift, be it the accruing coldness or the escalating, denied realisation that the marriage is perched on the anvil of collapse, registers with profound, sobering impact.

Steered by Helga Guren’s wrenching, emotionally naked, and sensational performance that should be on every year-ender list, the immaculately controlled “Loveable” is acutely alert and keenly open to unraveling minute nuances of behavior. It uses the gambit of a fraying marriage to splice apart a woman’s journey towards self-affirmation and embracing kindness to herself.

Loveable (Elskling) premiered in the main competition section at Karlovy Vary Film Festival 2024.

Loveable (Elskling, 2024) Movie Link: IMDb

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