In many looks at modern love, monogamy plus time equals tragedy. Comedic escapades (sexual and otherwise) might follow, but the storytellers who’ve apparently cracked the code typically tell their tale—be it a farce or a tearjerker—from an enlightened remove. The trajectories are merely predictable; it’s the tone that makes you roll your eyes. Swedish writer/director Tuva Novotny barely deviates from this expectation in her third feature. Interspersed are what makes Diorama anything but a slight, derivative examination of relationships: Silly, fourth-wall breaking, school-play explanations of animal pairing, brain chemistry and psychosexual history. It’s like a cartoonish, half-hearted, paper mache version of Sex at Dawn, supplanting its central couple’s emotions with actors in animal costumes appealing to authority. Diorama’s didactic drama is exhausting and its gestures towards absurdity only make its straightfaced attempts at insight all the more tiresome.
As we watch Frida (Pia Tjelta) and Björn (David Dencik) go from newly cohabitating horndogs to the put-upon parents of three, there is never a doubt about what will happen to their relationship. Dencik and Tjelta’s worn faces go through the marital motions like anthropomorphized divorce statistics, until their union blows up like we know it must. The barely defined couple suffers lightly from wanderlust, overwork, bad communication and an inability to get it on. And, momentarily, from Claes Bang as Frida’s hot and newly separated ex. Of course they disintegrate. Novotny captures their mental isolation, cluttered home and hectic family life capably, if with a similar level of imagination as she’s used to draw her characters. Whether in close-up frames, pitch-black darkness or full-room shots, her approach to realism goes beyond overlapping children’s chatter. But it’s when she lets herself get a little weird that the film shows any life at all.
Like looking into a dollhouse or watching an amateur theater production (both symbols literalized by the film), Diorama will briefly fly into the handcrafted fantastic. Its five-minute opening—which tracks humanity’s development of monogamy from promiscuous bonobo boning to well-hung cavemen to Augustine of Hippo to the neon ‘80s—still tires you out with its smug voiceover, but at least there is color, joy and humor. There’s not one moment in the rest of the film as visually lively or enjoyably juvenile as the prosthetic genitals that the intro’s Adam and Eve keep forgetting to keep covered up.
Humanoid chickens, voles and other critters parade throughout the film, sapping Frida and Björn’s plot of any remaining drama and giving Novotny a platform to directly bullhorn her reading list at us. It’s both the most on-the-nose her messaging is and the most engaging the film ever looks—apologies to the mimes performing a synchronized “drowning rodent” routine, but even that blue streamer-laden fun sinks due to the self-serious weight of Novotny’s beloved factoids and statistics. A trio of scientists even drop by for a spot of debate, looking into hormones’ influence on people’s receptiveness and ability to maintain monogamous relationships.
The scientific and historical debate is all too facile to excite, especially since the drama these interludes interrupt is so focused on the failures of one marriage rather than the success and struggle of something a bit less commonplace. For all Novotny’s interest in disrupting the relationship status quo, her nods towards non-monogamy as a relationship structure, reparative tool or titillating experiment all come on the fringes. In nods, hints, bits of dialogue that never evolve into something truly unexplored for cinematic relationships, unconventional modernity surrounds but never touches Frida and Björn. Their miscommunicated problems and lashed-out responses are as plain as unpunched drywall, their solutions as milquetoast and dependable as child support payments.
Without the haggard abilities of Dencik and Tjelta, Diorama’s drama would be unbearably dry. Without Novotny’s eccentric wanderings into the costumed animal kingdom, Diorama would be unwatchably rote. Even with the exhausted empathy generated by Tjelta’s hopeless sobs and the emasculated cruelty dispensed from beneath Dencik’s heavy brow, the film’s footnoted scenes from a marriage feel like someone’s first foray into thinking about polyamory’s effect on the relationship drama. Maybe next time, Novotny will actually explore it and break some new ground.
Director: Tuva Novotny
Writer: Tuva Novotny
Starring: David Dencik, Pia Tjelta, Claes Bang
Release Date: September 6, 2022 (Netflix)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.