Tove often feels less like a biopic about Tove Jansson’s career and more like a study of the Finnish art world in the 1940s. Eeva Putro’s screenplay is largely concerned with the conflict between the comforts of traditional family values and commercial art and the excitement of flouting society’s conventions. She is willing to present the artists in this film as self absorbed, self aggrandising and unable to handle the pressures of being in a committed relationship. Jansson’s work as the creator of the Moomins exists on the peripheries of the narrative and her troubled romantic life takes centre stage. This setup provides for an unusually rich evocation of a particular community and time period.
Alma Pöysti takes on the leading role and portrays Jansson as a woman of extraordinary privilege. She’s the daughter of a famed sculptor and has all the right connections in Helsinki society but hasn’t yet made a name for herself. She directs most of her energy into painting and is disheartened when she doesn’t receive a government sponsored grant for her work. This frustration extends to her personal life, as her brief affair with married politician Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Rony) fizzles out. When she meets wealthy theatre director Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen), she enters into an affair with her and this becomes the centre of her world. Bandler is untrustworthy and her mercurial personality often leaves Jansson feeling hurt and confused. As Jansson begins to develop her first real sketches of the Moomins, she wavers between various different lovers and can’t decide whether she wants to settle down with one of them.
As a director, Zaida Bergroth stages this like a political thriller, in which everybody fears getting stabbed in the back by their closest friends. In fact, some of the members of Jansson’s social circle are politicians and it is a reminder that people in her line of work are still influenced by a desire for approval and financial support from the wealthy and powerful. Putro establishes a complicated tension between the supposedly free-spirited artists and the rigidly conventional bourgeoisie. Bandler bounces between different sexual partners and abandons close friends at the drop of a hat, but never experiences real feelings of love. Her relationships are complicated by her desire to view her conquests as disposable and the feeling that she is in competition with many of her lovers. All of the members of this social circle are fighting for the small amount of recognition and public funding that can be found in Finland. They also have to consider the fact that their lovers have probably also slept with their rivals and best friends, which is sure to inspire feelings of jealousy. Everybody has to keep up the veneer of not being fully emotionally invested in their affairs and must treat them like impersonal flings. This means that they are walking on eggshells in the presence of their closest friends and colleagues. This is a perspective that isn’t often considered in dramas about the stormy love lives of artists. Too often, unhappy relationships are romanticised and treated like something to aspire to. Tove views these unsatisfying relationships as an unfortunate product of the complicated set of rules that the artists have set for themselves.
Putro also avoids indulging in clichés and doesn’t paint any of the characters as entirely good or bad people. Jansson does fear her father’s judgment and this is one of the pressures that stops her from producing more Moomins content, but he is never reduced down to being a cold, unloving tyrant. This fair, balanced approach is also applied to Jansson and her evolving personality. She is somebody who seduces the husband of another woman, without a second thought, but when she has been cheated on, she can’t bear it. The film lets this contradiction hang in the air and lets us make up our own minds about whether it is acceptable for her to feel the way she does. The unresolved nature of many of the questions that the film poses, make it surprisingly thought-provoking.
So many little touches add to mood of fear and loneliness that defines so much of this film. The mise-en-scène highlights the fact that every character in this film is always trying to impress the people around them. Whenever Jansson enters a living room full of random tchotchkes and ostentatious lights, it immediately tells you something about the people who own the house. The homogeneity of the set dressing helps to explain why Jansson is suffused with a desire to leave Finland and explore the world. When she briefly absconds to Paris, the minimalism of the interior decoration is enough to create a shift in the atmosphere. She is no longer in a place where every room is over-cluttered with status symbols and gaudy, overly expensive objects. There is room to breathe and fully appreciate the world around her.
Pöysti’s beautifully modulated performance is another touch that gives the film a sense of specificity that so many biopics lack. She has to capture the many facets of Jansson’s complex personality and display her conflicted mindset without losing sight of the larger purpose of many of the scenes she appears in. She’s often presented as an observer who is content to let others talk while she admires them. Pöysti makes the most of all of the reaction shots that she is given and never appears to be trying to steal scenes from her fellow performers. She intrinsically understands that this is a role that requires a certain amount of stillness and passivity. Those qualities are not easy to project and Pöysti deserves a lot of credit for her consistent subtlety.
This is a marvellous production that deserves the positive response it has received. It unflinchingly tackles difficult subjects and features the sort of three-dimensional characters that all feminist viewers dream about. With those virtues on its side, it stands as one of the finest films to come out of the last year, a time that’s been marked by too many safe, unoriginal films.
Blue Finch Film Releasing presents Tove in cinemas 9 July, 2021.