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MOVIE REVIEW

Involving 'Daybreak' doesn't quite convince

Journey with me now into the dark, embittered soul of middle-class Sweden. It's a society on the brink, with aging couples walling themselves into their own homes, doctors behaving like spoiled children, and spurned women taking ex-husbands hostage at Taser-point. ''Daybreak" implies this is Swedish business as usual. Which goes some way toward explaining the suicide rate.

If I'm sounding a bit glib about a movie that has picked up international festival awards and gives a meaty dramatic role to actress Pernilla August -- ''Star Wars" droolers know her as Darth Vader's mom -- it's because ''Daybreak" is involving and sometimes comically bleak but never fully convincing as drama. Writer-director Bjorn Runge leads with his agenda rather than his characters, so you're always aware of him looking over your shoulder, muttering, ''See? Can you believe how messed up we are?"

The issue is communication or lack thereof -- a problem every technological society wrestles with. To give shape to the dilemma, ''Daybreak" throws a gallery of characters into the air and lets them sort themselves into three intercut story lines, much like multiplot films such as ''Magnolia," ''Short Cuts," and the current (and superior) Czech film ''Up and Down."

The most compelling of the three plotlines -- and the one to veer furthest into dark farce -- concerns Richard (Jacob Eklund), a handsome but arrogant heart surgeon whose life, to his apparent amusement, is falling apart. There are many things he can't tell his wife (August), and only some of them involve his mistress (Marie Richardson), who happens to be married to his best friend, Mats (Lief Andree). Richard is the sort of macho yuppie who thinks buying a new car is the answer to every problem, but ''Daybreak" culminates in a deliciously unpleasant dinner party in which he is slowly painted into a corner.

Elsewhere in town, a financially pinched bricklayer named Anders (Magnus Krepper) takes on an unusual job: mortaring up the windows and doors of a well-to-do husband (Ingvar Hirdvall) and wife (Marika Lindstrom). The couple blandly plan to never leave the house -- hoodlums have taken over the neighborhood, and besides, they have 1,000 cans of beans -- but the laborer grows increasingly appalled when the husband asks him to drill rifle holes next to each window. There are secret reasons for their retreat from the world, and they reflect all too ironically on Anders's own home life.

The third narrative strand stars Ann Petran as Anita, a middle-age woman ditched by her husband (Peter Andersson) for a younger woman (Sanna Krepper). The experience has hardened the spurned wife into a black hole of resentment; as she rails against the Swedish government, the medical establishment, everyone and everybody, it becomes clear that the notion of another woman living in her house has driven her to the edge of madness. She only needs a push, which the director is happy to provide.

Nicely shot and smartly acted, ''Daybreak" is at its bluntest and most inarguable when the characters shut out the world in favor of various virtual realities. August, playing the long-suffering Agnes, expresses a sorrow beyond words as her teenage sons retreat behind violent video games; Anders grows more and more perturbed when the old couple he's bricking up hunker down with headphones and a wall TV. Anita arrives at her ex-husband's house intent on pulling down the cozy lie of his domestic bliss, and so ferocious is Petran's performance that you hold your breath waiting to see which way the enraged ex-wife will go.

But truth telling is on the menu in ''Daybreak" too, and it's rather neatly parceled out. Without spoiling the ending(s), I can say that filmmaker Runge is adept at puncturing all the bourgeois myths except the one about closure, which he needs for this too-tidy film's too-tidy wrap-up. He has made an experience that's razor sharp, yet never draws blood.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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