By John A. Riley

Those who know Tomas Alfredson from his international successes Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are likely to consider him as a director at home with genre material, working with well-known tropes in a highly stylised but somehow unassuming way. His two well known films have a hard-edged indifference that is as exhilarating as it is chilling.

It may come as a surprise then, that Alfredson began his career as part of the Swedish comedy group Killinggänget. This group gradually evolved towards a style of drama/comedy that became known as “brown comedy.” Four Shades of Brown presents four case studies in this style of bittersweet Scandinavian humour. A man suffers a horrific accident while trying to bond with his young son. An elderly couple who work as stage magicians visit their son as he opens a luxury hotel. When an incredibly wealthy eccentric dies, his family congregate to execute his equally eccentric will. A cookery class spills over into cathartic group therapy for a selection of neurotics. These stories are united by the theme of fatherhood, and are all executed by Alfredson with his trademark geometric mise en scene.

Films that segment themselves into a number of separate stories suggest a wider scope, as if taking the pulse of a particular milieu, as in some of Robert Altman’s work. To an outsider such as the present commentator, there does seem to be something quintessentially Scandinavian, a mood that couldn’t be captured elsewhere, at work in this film. It’s the combination of minimal Ikea-style interiors (bolstered by Alfredson’s stylish shots) and a curious mix of Nordic Pooterism with a liberal individualism. A stifling suburban malaise descends as we see a couple sitting side by side in identical armchairs, each reading their own copy of the same Inspector Wallander novel. The eccentric millionaire tells us that he grew up in a household with three mothers (his biological mother having selected a suitable mate for a one-off, commitment-free encounter purely in order to procreate) and goes on to tell us about his career as a pornographic performer.

But the linking theme of fatherhood seems rather loosely handled, perhaps too slight a premise on which to hang a three hour movie. But what gives Four Shades of Brown its coherence is the distinctive “brown comedy.” It’s pointedly satirical, portraying people as ridiculous, often dislikeable, but never quite turning them into grotesques. Laugh out loud moments are followed, sometimes moments later, with unnerving tragedy.

Alfredson’s international career looks set to take off, and it is unclear at this stage whether Four Shades of Brown will be remembered by critics and cinephiles, or dismissed as apprentice work. However, the film should serve as a reminder of his distinctive Scandinavian sensibility and his sober directing style, even when dealing with material that might suggest a more freewheeling, whimsical handling.

Director: Tomas Alfredson
Producer: Caisa Westling
Screenwriters: Tomas Alfredson, Robert Gustafsson, Jonas Inde, Andres Lokko, Martin Luuk, Johan Rheborg, Henrik Schyffert
Cinematographer: Leif Benjour
Starring: Robert Gustafsson, Johan Rheborg, Henrik Schyffert, Jonas Inde, Maria Kulle, Ulf Brunnberg
192 mins