It’s 1943 in Helsinki, Finland, and Tove Jansson is putting on her first solo art exhibition under the guise and shadow of her father, the famous sculptor Viktor Jansson. Her demeanor seems almost childish, highlighted by the paradox of her stubborn whimsy that is regularly undermined by her sheepish self-doubt.
In the biographical film “Tove,” directed by Zaida Bergroth, the paradox of the self is a central theme. It follows Tove and every character in her life. It is seen in her father, who invests heavily in Tove’s artistic disciplines, yet refuses to offer her any approval.
Her lover, philosopher Atos Wirtanen, openly admits to it, as his logic and advocacy for personal freedom contradicts the strong and painful emotions he feels for Tove. The film’s largest paradox of all is found in Tove’s other lover, Vivica Bandler, a bold seductress who is terrified of emotional intimacy.
Although this film tells Tove’s story mostly through her sexual relationships, it is not about romance. As the film’s subtitle, “In Search of Freedom and Desire” suggests, Tove’s relationships are shown rather as chapters in her life’s journey of personal and artistic discovery.
That said, the film gets more caught up in the interpersonal stress of Tove’s relationships than it explores Tove’s inner world or her personal creativity, unfortunately leaving a sense of intimacy to be desired for what one would expect in a biopic.
With its large scope spanning from the 1940s to the 1950s, it seems the film’s goal is to capture Tove’s development and self-acceptance as she comes into her own, but the audience never really gets a strong sense of who she is or why she was drawn to making the Moomin books and comic strips for which she is known outside of it being an escape from the expectations of her father and the fine art world.
The information the audience is given only provides a rough sketch of who Tove was. It shows the audience she is insistent on her personal freedom, embracing of her strong and varied emotions, and she loves to dance and move freely, but we never get past a superficial understanding of her motivations and passions.
The film also lacks a strong sense of voice in its compositions. The colors and light in the photography are beautifully naturalistic, but it is executed mostly through careless handheld shots that lack emphasis on any particular emotion or idea, often disrupting the film’s most tense and intimate moments.
There are a few lovely inserts on Tove’s drawings and striking close-ups of her in emotionally heightened moments, but overall the photography feels inconsistent and uninspired. What makes this film worth watching are the brilliant performances. Alma Poysti gives Tove, who died in Helsinki in 2001, the complexity and mystery that the writing doesn’t quite capture.
Her performance felt nuanced and rich. Krista Kosonen almost steals the show in her performance as Vivica. She is perfectly menacing and sexy, and in the moments that show Vivica’s true, frightened self, Kosonen masterfully expresses Vivica’s inner emotional chaos.
“Tove” should also be praised for its costumes and art direction. The costumes felt entirely authentic, not only for the time but also for each character’s personal style and social status. Every set felt lived in, rich in detail and true to its time.
Although “Tove” is not entirely successful in painting a detailed portrait of its subject, it is a lovely and worthwhile watch as a moving and captivating drama. You can catch “Tove” at the Magic Lantern Theatre through Thursday.
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