Directed by Susanne Bier
Opens March 27 at the Landmark Sunshine
Why did it have to come to this, Serena? The version of Susanne Bier’s Depression-era psychodrama released in theaters this week—by the barest of all possible minimums—is a guaranteed studio ribbon-job, the evidence on display suggesting each and every extremity shaved down to a nub. The picture is as indebted to the attractions of the Hollywood period melodrama as they come, pairing Bradley Cooper as George Pemberton, a dopey lumber prospector, and Jennifer Lawrence as his eponymous, power-mad young wife. Bier’s heretofore touch with actors glistens through some of the blemished passages, but the casting (rumored to have torpedoed the postproduction process, as Cooper and Lawrence became megastars and 2929 Productions duly pressured Bier to make a different film) is hardly inspired: Lawrence and Cooper’s performances manage the odd feat of canceling each other out, with the leading man cycling through different accents as if still demo-ing for the job, while Lawrence is relegated to a bland, pretty, tear-streaked widescreen visage.
The screenplay betrays a certain occasional appreciation for the esoterica of North Carolina history, but every shred of nuance finds itself at eternal odds with the outsize nature of the material. Bier has alleged that Serena was supposed to be a film about a woman suffering from a mental illness, but what she represents here is a childhood trauma and/or curse that’s (naturally) the key to her siren-like irresistibility, while George is manifest destiny writ sociopathic. Much of Serena consists of watching two attractive people make cataclysmically stupid decisions, torn asunder by psychosexual pressures left out of the patchwork man-meets-girl narrative. The film’s endeavors to get viewers to take George and Serena seriously—wherein their expository courtship is essentially a transitional montage, threaded with nocturnal sex scenes—can’t help but backfire from start to finish. The most entrancing thing Serena has going for it are its bookending vistas of mist-soaked mountains, ensconcing all the film’s whooping-and-hollering within an unknowable folk legend, the same way future cinephiles will look back and wonder: “Man, just what the hell went wrong with Serena?”