“Don’t you ever get the peculiar feeling of ‘Is this all?’ ” serially unfaithful surgeon Rickard (Jakob Eklund) asks his wife, Agnes (Pernilla August), in Daybreak. Spectators may find themselves asking the same question about writer-director Björn Runge’s film, a studied, overwrought look into Personal Crisis and Redemption.
Runge gives us scenes from several marriages—with increasingly silly plot contrivances—all transpiring over a 24-hour period in an unnamed Swedish town. Rickard, after a grueling night of performing open-heart surgery, callously ends his affair with Sofie (Marie Richardson, a Scandinavian Jessica Lange), who’s married to his good friend and colleague Mats (Leif Andrée). Mats and Sofie, however, exact revenge by humiliating their hosts during dinner at Rickard and Agnes’s sleekly designed home. Workaholic construction worker Anders (Magnus Krepper), who dreams of buying a summer house, incurs the disdain of his wife and teenage daughter when he forgoes a snuggly afternoon of pizza and video renting with them to take a lucrative assignment from Knut and Mona (Ingvar Hirdwall and Marika Lindström), a xenophobic, agoraphobic couple who want to transform their entire residence into a panic room. Anita (Ann Petrén), her face pickled with rage from losing Olof (Peter Andersson), her husband of 26 years, to Petra (Sanna Krepper), a physical therapist half his age, peddles in the valley of the dolls, selling roofies in a parking garage. After a cash-poor, downer-addicted priest barters a stun gun for sedatives, Anita uses the malevolent device to torture her ex and his young blonde bride.
After a long Nordic night’s journey into day, replete with ranting, weeping, and Stockholm syndrome, the players arrive at a schematic, tidy moment of clarity. Morning has broken: Errant fathers and sadistic ex-wives are forgiven and venture forth into the blue light; Rickard breaks down and hugs his son Jonas (Johan Kvarnström); Anders wants to have a picnic en famille; Anita discards her weapon of mass destruction.
The failings of Daybreak can be summed up in this maxim from The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan: “Tynan’s Law of Responsible Cinema: all films that seek seriously to diagnose the Contemporary Human Predicament are bad.” In this cluttered ensemble film, characters are no more than the modern dilemmas they represent: upper-middle-class alienation, the exhausting pursuit of cash and middle-class trappings, paranoia, pill popping. “Don’t you ever stop to wonder what life is all about?” bonkers Anita asks Olof, bound to a chair. It’s one of a series of banal queries that Runge wants us to take seriously—but which inspire nothing more than a shrug of indifference.