Games People Play (Seurapeli)

Finland (2020) Dir. Jenni Toivoniemi

People mean well but don’t always get things right, although it is not always their fault. Some topics of discussion aren’t easy to bring up or are best kept to oneself, not that friends will let you stay silent for long. But once the gates are open, who knows what you might hear that you rather you hadn’t.

A group of old friends arrange for a weekend getaway in a rural lakeside holiday house under the pretence of surprising Mitzi (Emmi Parviainen) for her 40th birthday. But when Natali (Iida-Maria Heinonen) and Ulla (Paula Vesala) go to pick Mitzi up, she is alone, smoking, drinking, and on edge. Suffice to say, the surprise welcome doesn’t go down so well, as Mitzi announces she is getting a divorce and was hoping for a peaceful weekend.

Once the many bottles of booze are opened, the mood lightens a bit, until Veronika (Laura Birn) arrives with her new Swedish film star boyfriend Mikael (Christian Hillborg) to the surprise of everyone, including younger sister Natali. During dinner, Mikael asks how everyone first met and the story yields a secret which opens up a Pandora ’s Box of repressed feelings and pent up frustrations.

Jenni Toivoniemi’s feature debut falls into a subgenre of film that really needs a name – the one where old friends get together, reminisce, and fall out over silly things is a bit of a mouthful. I’m sure there is a German or French term that is suitable, they usually have a word for everything. Games People Play doesn’t break any new ground thematically, relying on the characters and script from Toivoniemi’s pen to connect with the audience regardless of geography.

Taking her visual cues from the Dogme-95 style of filmmaking, and blending them with the confrontational introspection of Bergman’s summer films, Toivoniemi weaves quite a tangled web involving this bunch of 30-40 somethings. The usual regrets and hidden truths make up the foundation for the fraught disagreements, among people who should really know better but can’t admit to themselves, let alone others, that they don’t.

Making up this dysfunctional and, as it transpires, incestuous collective is uptight writer Juhana (Samuli Niittymäki), Mitzi’s ex-boyfriend now married to Ulla; Janne (Paavo Kinnunen), the youngest one nobody sees as an adult, who is secretly dating Natali but she doesn’t want to make it public; and Härde (Eero Milonoff), the loud, gregarious one with a child he never gets to see, and history with some or all the women.

It’s a collection of battered egos, whose past interactions are thinly laid out or implied which are the built upon over the next 113 minutes. For example, there is a moment early on where Härde tells Janne he is glad they became friends, though Janne is less enthused about it – reading between the lines it could be inferred this was possibly once a bully/victim relationship, and a time presses on, Janne remains the butt of the jokes from all sides.

Elsewhere, Juhana is preoccupied with Mitzi now being single again (or at least on the road to being single again) to the annoyance of Ulla. For some reason, she sports large ‘90s style glasses and baggy clothes as if she is under Juhana’s control, but she is not so mousey, announcing on the second morning that she is pregnant. However, what is actually bothering Juhana the most is what Mitzi revealed the night before.

During the dinner, the story of how they meet is revisited, involving Mitzi seeing both Juhana and Härde and fancying Härde, but Veronika, who knew them both, mixed their names up, so Mitzi ended up with Juhana instead, whilst she and Härde hooked up. At first, it elicited nervous giggles and the usual “let bygones be bygones” brushing under the carpet – not so for Juhana who is seething and can’t let it go.

Booze plays a bit part in fuelling most of the fire lit over the course of this fraught and revelatory weekend, and oddly contributes to some of the reconciliations too. But there has to be an element of truth to it for it to hurt so much, and this is the one thing nobody is willing to admit to. They continue to play their roles as normal but the cracks have only been papered over, coming to a head during a round of Truth or Karaoke and the claws really come out.

Quite often, you read complaints about how some men can’t write female character well, one thing that stands out here is how well Toivoniemi writes men. They could have been complete clichés but the perceptiveness of the nuances in  their behaviour, the language they use, and their internal logic makes for compulsive viewing. This applies to the women too, giving them the backbone modern women have, to offset the testosterone surrounding them.

Finnish culture may continue to be baffling to many of us, and I can’t recall ever seeing anything like the song the girls sing for Mitzi for her birthday, the lyrics making rather crude references to a certain body part. Conversely, there is a brilliant line from Natali to Veronika which I’m surprised isn’t a meme by now- “If only you had the vagina to face your emotions”! Brutal yet accurate.

Clearly, Toivoniemi has enough of one to put forward what feels like a cathartic script full of astute observation about growing up, and has found a great cast to bring these testy folk to life. Intuitive and unaffected performances all round, the only downside for me was the English dialogue not being subtitled (as Swede Mikael didn’t peak Finnish) and the constant shaky camerawork as if the cameraman permanently needed the loo!

Games People Play takes a while to settle into its jaunty rhythms of gnarly emotional conflicts, peppered with lighter moments of gauche camaraderie, but its resonance and relatable depth with the viewer on a personal level might surprise even the most cynical among you.

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