How do you solve a problem like “Serena”? That, at least, is the question industry watchers have been asking about Danish helmer Susanne Bier’s mysteriously withheld American feature — which, despite wrapping in 2012 with the enticing star duo of Jennifer Lawrenceand Bradley Cooper, has sat on the shelf ever since. With the film finally out in the open, the question is no easier to answer: An arrestingly nihilistic Depression melodrama, marked by courageous performances and exquisite production values, this story of a timber-industry power couple undone by financial and personal corruption nonetheless boasts neither a narrative impetus nor a perceptible objective. The result is both problematic and fascinating, an unsympathetic spiral of human tragedy that plays a little like a hand-me-down folk ballad put to film. It’s not hard to see why a U.S. distributor has been slow to step forward.
Magnolia Pictures, sister outfit of the pic’s production company 2929, will ultimately release “Serena” Stateside in 2015, while Blighty auds will get to see it later this month, hot on the heels of its London festival premiere. (Despite that imminent date, the film was presented without opening or closing credits at the screening attended.) Marketing for the film is already positioning it as a throwback romance in the “Cold Mountain” vein, with understandably heavy emphasis on Lawrence and Cooper looking scrumptious in Signe Sejlund’s impeccable period costumes, but it won’t take long for word to spread that Bier’s film is a far pricklier property than outward appearances might suggest.
Not that Ron Rash’s acclaimed 2008 novel, rather liberally adapted by “Alexander” scribe Christopher Kyle, promised anything else. Though the film’s silly, thriller-ized denouement lends events a cleaner sense of resolution than Rash’s more opaque outcome, it remains a work of near-operatic pessimism, its consistent preoccupation with basest human behavior obscuring any rooting interest in the events onscreen. As a study in mutually destructive marital abrasion, “Serena” boasts no less bleak a worldview than David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” with which it would unexpectedly form a canny double bill. (“The only thing that frightens me is the thought that you don’t trust me,” says one spouse to another here — a line that could have been penned by Gillian Flynn herself.)
“Serena’s” chilly, repeatedly self-severing storytelling is arguably more avant-garde than the plushly appointed star vehicle that surrounds it, though it’s hard to gauge the film’s own awareness of that disconnect. The first encounter between logging baron George Pemberton (Cooper) and Lawrence’s feisty title character is a case in point: They meet on horseback, the wind caressing their respective tresses, and his opening line is, “I think we should be married.” It’s either an instant of heightened romantic fantasy or a bitter parody of such a Hollywood-fostered ideal; Bier’s typically measured, tasteful direction doesn’t let on which.
Either way, it’s just a couple of swift cuts before the two are indeed married, and George brings his not-quite-blushing Colorado bride to his muddy lumber empire in the North Carolina mountains. His colleagues are less than welcoming, and not just because the outdoorsy, relentlessly capable Serena takes a more active role in her husband’s business affairs than was generally expected of American women in 1929. George’s chief advisor Buchanan (David Dencik), who supposedly harbors homosexual feelings for his boss signaled less by the script than by his collection of densely patterned cravats, is particularly resentful of her intrusion. Meanwhile, George’s destitute ex-lover, Rachel (striking Romanian actress Ana Ularu), is pregnant with his child, though Serena is unfazed: “Nothing that happened before even exists,” she says, as Lawrence’s bemusedly hard gaze betrays the first hint of the femme fatale within.
Her denial proves over-optimistic, however, as internal and external pressures conspire to end their steamily wedded bliss: Tipped off by the resentful Buchanan, local sheriff and conservationist McDowell (Toby Jones) closes in on George’s crooked financial dealings, determined to close down the lumber practice. The newly pregnant Serena, meanwhile, is suspicious of her husband’s gestures of support toward Rachel.
After an exceedingly slow-burning 45 minutes, an abrupt murder kicks the proceedings into the kind of high melodramatic key for which Bier is known, as Serena’s mental state rapidly deteriorates following a miscarriage, setting in motion a chain of dubiously motivated acts of malice. A finale that integrates arson, animal attacks and a three-way manhunt is far more high-flown than that of the source novel, though there’s something brazen about its stubborn resistance to conventional moral redemption. Bier’s Danish-language work, usually structurally and emotionally cohesive to a fault, has rarely been this compellingly untidy.
In the wake of her two collaborations with David O. Russell — for context, “Serena” was filmed between them — auds should no longer be surprised by Lawrence’s preternatural poise and inventiveness in roles for which she seems improbably, or at least prematurely, cast. While her fierce, heels-dug-in screen presence still can’t make sense of Serena’s all-too-sudden descent into madness, hers is still a performance of agile, angular daring, often toggling sweetheart and vixen personae in the space of a single scowl.
The Stanwyck comparisons lavished upon Lawrence’s Oscar-winning work in “Silver Linings Playbook” resurface here; she certainly looks every inch the Golden Age siren with her crimped vanilla locks and array of creamy silken sheaths that, true to vintage Hollywood form, never seem to get sullied in the wild. The star also makes good on her proven chemistry with Cooper, who acquits himself with stoic intelligence and a variable regional accent in an inscrutable role that, for its occasional flourishes of Clark Gable bravado, is equal parts hero, anti-hero and patsy.
Nothing is more consistent in “Serena” than Morton Sorborg’s tangibly autumnal widescreen lensing, its soaked-timber palette and swirling, expansive skyscapes going to dedicated lengths to beautify these ugly goings-on. (The unspoiled South, as is so often the case these days, is convincingly played by the Czech Republic.) The film’s spot-on costuming and production design, meanwhile, collaborate to make the title character a rarely plumed bird in this ravishly drab landscape — not unlike the symbolically pointed trained eagle she imports from Colorado — while George and his tweedy cohorts are practically camouflage-clad.