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For non-Nordic viewers who only know of Tove Jansson as a name attached to the cuddly, dumpling-shaped creatures called the Moomins — mid-20th-century comic strip trolls resembling hippopotami, composed of negative space and living in some kind of tundra-adjacent landscape — the engaging biopic Tove will offer some interesting surprises. Not only was Moomins creator Jansson, played with moxie by theater actor Alma Poysti, the libidinous and unconventional black sheep of an already bohemian artistic family, but she also was bisexual. Covering Jansson’s formative adult years, from just before the end of World War II to the 1950s, Tove tracks her romantic entanglements with both men and women.
Along the way, parallels with key characters from the children’s stories and their adventures are gestured at vaguely. But the film doesn’t particularly require in-depth knowledge of Moominism and can be enjoyed for its bright performances, on-point costumes and sets, and empathic portrait of young love. Although Tove is mostly in Swedish, the Nordic co-production is Finland’s official submission to the Academy’s Awards in the best international feature category.
The drama is written by Eeva Putro (who also appears onscreen as Tove’s friend Maya), but anyone who caught director Zaida Bergroth’s earlier feature Maria’s Paradise will spot a family resemblance between that film and the new one. Paradise riffed on a true-life-inspired, 1920s story about a Finnish religious cult, told through the eyes of an emotional but physically chaste triangle among three women. Similarly, Tove, though more assertively carnal, finds contemporary echoes in a historical setting, once again delving into a subculture just on the edge of the bourgeoisie. Politics is more forward in the mix, with talk of socialist principles bandied about. Characters sneer at Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen), the woman who will be Tove’s great love, for being a rich girl, the daughter of the mayor no less, who’s playing at being an artist by directing theater.
In a way, Tove is the opposite, born into a family of high-culture producers, led by patriarch Viktor (Robert Enckell), a severe sculptor who constantly nags Tove to work at her oil painting. But the willful young woman can’t stop doodling the blobby little creatures that will eventually populate her comic books, mere “illustration” work that Daddy looks down on. Similarly, an impish, unconventional streak leads her to seduce upcoming left-wing politician Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney, charmingly rumpled), who’s married. The two are so brazen that his wife telephones Tove’s apartment when he’s in danger of missing a family appointment.
But sweet though Atos is, and helpful too when he offers her a weekly slot in the socialist newspaper he publishes, his love can’t really compare to the intense passion she feels in bed with Vivica. It’s like being swept up by a dragon, she confesses to him at one point, a ravishing she can’t resist. That said, apart from the odd shot of nipples and unwaxed pubic zones, the love scenes between the two women are shot relatively chastely, and Poysti and Bergroth convey the ecstasy mostly through Tove’s frequent capering.
Dancing plays a key role throughout, with many scenes unfurling as DP Linda Wassberg’s 16mm camera weaves in and out of the action and the cast cavort, cuddle and generally cut a rug in numerous party scenes. It all makes sense when an epilogue, shot on 8mm by Jansson’s eventual life partner, Tuulikki Pietila (played here fleetingly by Joanna Haartti), shows the actual Tove frolicking about on the island home where she spent summers years later. The footage underscores how well Poysti has captured Jansson’s sprite-like energy, her joyful pleasure in movement and sort of cute exhibitionist streak. The soundtrack of old jazz standards, including classics by Benny Goodman and the tango tunes Finns so love, injects a bonny bounce into what at times risks becoming a sad story of unrequited passions and unhappy lovers.
Cast: Alma Poysti, Krista Kosonen, Shanti Roney, Robert Enckell, Kajsa Ernst, Joanna Haartti, Jakob Ohrman, Eeva Putro, Wilhelm Enckell, Emma Klingenberg, Lidia Taavitsainen
Production: A Helsinki Filmi production in association with Anagram Sweden
Director: Zaida Bergroth
Screenwriter: Eeva Putro, based on a story by Eeva Putro and Jarno Elonen
Producers: Andrea Reuter, Aleksi Bardy
Executive producers: Tia Stahlberg, Helen Vinogradov, Dome Karukoski, Annika Sucksdorff
Director of photography: Linda Wassberg
Production designer: Catharina Nyqvist Ehrnrooth
Costume designer: Eugen Tamberg
Editor: Samu Heikkila
Music: Matti Bye
Casting: Jantsu Puumalainen
Sales: Level K
In Swedish, Finnish and English
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