Writers: Eeva Putro and Jarno Elonen
Director: Zaida Bergroth
This biopic about the Finnish writer and artist Tove Jansson frustratingly tells us little of her work, but instead concentrates on a stormy same-sex relationship that started in the 1940s and lasted until the 50s. Alma Pöysti gives a mesmerising performance as the artist struggling to be taken seriously, but the focus on a single affair, which perhaps was not even the most important in her life, means that other parts of her life are overlooked.
Vivica first makes an entrance when she attends the opening of an exhibition of Tove’s paintings. Not only standing out because of her height she is also the Mayor’s daughter and a member of the bourgeoisie. In comparison, Tove, and her father, a famous sculptor, have to depend on grants and subsidies to pursue their artistic careers. When Vivica approaches Tove at the party with the mention of a commission, the artist is disappointed to learn that instead of a painting Vivica wants an illustration for the invitations for her father’s birthday dinner.
Presumably at this point, Tove has started on her Moomin books – indeed the first was published in 1945 – but although the series was successful, they don’t seem to bring in much money, For most of the film, she rents a single room that doubles up as bedroom and studio, giving her landlady a painting when she can’t afford the rent. When she visits Vivica’s house for the first time she is nearly turned away by the footman, as, in her Bohemian clothes, she’s not the sort of company the Mayor wishes to keep.
But Vivica’s lofty position in society affords her the freedom to have same-sex affairs, and her husband is nowhere to be seen. When a servant walks in while the two women are in bed, Tove hides under the sheets afraid of being caught, but the maid easily takes it in her stride. This story of a lesbian relationship between an artist and a member of the elite, of course, evokes memories of the affair between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, and in Zaida Bergroth’s film Tove appears as innocent as Virginia and Vivica is as vampish and predatory as Vita.
Tove is smitten, and says that her love for another woman has opened up a new room inside her; Vivica is just as poetic, and calls women like themselves ‘ghosts’ and asks Tove to go with her to Paris as they are plenty of ghosts there. But Tove remains in Helsinki, still trying to make her reputation as a visual artist rather than be seen as a caricaturist.
Filmed mostly indoors, Bergroth’s film captures the optimism of postwar Europe, but Bohemian society seems limited for Tove and her friends; still, they drink hard and dance to loud music. And perhaps these party scenes when Tove loses herself in the Big Band sound, or when she makes drunken promises that she can’t keep, are the best in the film.
Pöysti is utterly believable as artist whether she is waiting at home for Vivica to call or whether she is painting scenery for her Moomin stage show. She allows us to see how sensitive Tove is, and how exasperated she becomes in her blind love. As Vivica, Krista Kosonen is full of gestures and facades, hardly attending to the wreckage she causes, while Shanti Roney puts in good work as Atos Wirtanen, the Socialist politician whose desire for Tove mirrors that of hers for Vivica. It’s a well-played triangle.
There’s a final one-sided relationship in the film: Tove’s father never appreciates her work. He sits with his back to her when she visits and walks out of the theatrical adaptation of the Moomins before the curtain call. But this film is just as guilty as Jansson senior in ignoring her work. By telling the story of her sexual life, Tove’s skills as an artist and illustrator are sidelined, and those who don’t know her work won’t be any the wiser.
BFI Flare runs here from 17 March to 28 March 2021