Selma Vihunen‘s Four Little Adults is a studiously even-handed and sober examination of subject matter that could easily be played for salacious moralising or tear-stained melodrama. A marriage suddenly plunged into crisis is allowed to bend rather than break, opened up in order to remain intact. It’s potentially tricky material handled with a light tone and a correspondingly breezy tone, yet even though it is consistently entertaining, it feels like it doesn’t peer too deeply below its surface and shies away from its trickier implications.

Juulia (Fallen LeavesAlma Pöysti) is a politician married to Matias (Eero Milinoff, best know here for Border). The marriage seems happy, suggested by their enthusiastic, drug-enhanced lovemaking, yet Juulia discovers Matias has been involved with pretty younger parishioner Enni (Oona Airola) for at least a year. Devastated but resolute, she makes a bold proposal: they open up the marriage – following the rules in a book she’s read on polyamory). Matias can to continue seeing Enni, and she is also free to date elsewhere. Not long after, she meets non-binary artist and drag queen Miska (Pietu Wikström) and begins a relationship with them. Of course, despite all best intentions, inevitable complications rear their head.

Vilhunen’s direction is unspectacular and the film is shot in earthy, autumnal tones, which goes a long way to highlight the ordinariness of the central couple. For all it has a comic tone, it takes its subject seriously, and is intent on depicting the logistical and emotional aspects of polyamorous relationships rather than titillating bedhopping. Even scenes of amyl-nitrate driven sex and cunnilingus during menstruation are handled with a certain Nordic restraint and control; a stylistic choice that extends to its themes and characterisation.

Despite the title, Four Little Adults is really Pöysti’s film. As the catalyst for the polyamorous scenario, it has to be believable that Juulia would make such a bold suggestion. And it is, when it becoms clear that everything in Pöysti’s performance is tuned towards Juulia’s attempts to control every situation. An extremely telling detail is during that pivotal scene where she presents Enni and Matias with the A to Z of Polyamory books with relevant passages highlighted. If she’s going to lose part of her husband’s attention and affection, it’s going to be on her terms. It’s some beautifully modulated work from Pöysti, every bit as good as her acclaimed turn in Fallen Leaves.

The other characters are a little more underdeveloped. Oona Airola finds empathy and warmth in Enni, who would be too easy to depict as the painted woman (although given this is Finland, there is altogether too much knitwear for such stereotypes). There is at least a sense of a rounded, complex human being and it does help that Airola is an instantly endearing, open presence. The same can’t be said of Miska. Wikström is game enough, but Miska feels like a certain exotic afterthought; added to be a cipher of the queer side of polyamory. Even Matias is lacking depth beyond his thematic wallowing in what his relationship status would mean applied against Protestant doctrine. There really isn’t anything to suggest just why Juulia and Enni are so devoted to the taciturn, beetle-browed cleric.

It remains engaging, yet even at two hours it feels a little rushed, sidelining potentially interesting aspects likes how their relationships affect their professional status, or ignores aspects like the power dynamics at play given Matias and Juulia’s careers as figures of authority. Do both Matias and Juulia abuse their position with Enni to some degree for instance? It is a premise of rich potential, it feels like it would benefit from some Bergman-esque rigour – Scenes from an Open Marriage perhaps. Four Little Adults remains however, an elegant comic drama made with an innate intelligence. Such a messy subject is handled perhaps a little cleanly, but it’s a still a refreshingly judgement-free examinations of the subject.

In selected cinemas from Fri 7 Jun 2024