Finn Family Moomintroll sat untouched on my childhood bookshelf for years after an initial attempt to read it. Books like The Phantom Tollbooth, The Cricket in Times Square, and Danny the Champion of the World all made sense to me. But there was something impenetrable about Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll oeuvre. Odd creatures — one vaguely recognizable as an upright though svelter hippopotamus — performed baffling Scandinavian rituals and shenanigans. I never pictured the author because I couldn’t imagine the world they’d summoned up. Tove, directed by Zaida Bergroth, is a shimmering biopic that fills in Jansson’s blank face in my mind with Alma Pöysti’s energy, charm and a leavening dose of Bergmanesque melancholia.
Tove (Pöysti) is the daughter of a well-regarded, conventional Finnish-Swedish sculptor. When we are introduced to him, he’s industriously making a plaster caste and chiding her. His back is to the camera. Bergroth avoids zeroing in on Viktor’s (Robert Enckell) face as well as his reaction shots to Tove. From this initial interaction, Bergroth establishes the film’s visual framework. We will be seeing things from Tove’s point of view. Through the daughter’s subjectivity, we feel the weight of his dour parenting style and the disappointment that radiates out from his disapproving eyes.
Tove though doesn’t get overwrought with Freudian undertones. Pöysti is a natural blonde and the lighting reflects and enhances the actress with subdued golden and warm gray light. Bergroth uses lighting the way Jane Campion does in The Piano. It creates the impression of a halo effect around Tove and a sense of intimacy with Pöysti’s array of emotions. She finds a way to convey Tove’s shyness without making it look like a neurosis. Before the author and illustrator arrives at her Moomintroll calling, the film finds layers of Tove’s inner strength and resolve. In each successive scene, she evolves into the person we see in the closing credits, an original, daffy eccentric.
The end credits roll with found footage of the real Tove Jansson (d. 2001) dancing like a mad flapper in front of a country cabin. She looks like Ruth Gordon’s (Harold and Maude) spirit twin. Tonally, Tove isn’t informed by that particular home movie. It’s as serious as a broken heart. When Pöysti dances, her movements are informed by the French New Wave and punk rock. Her arms are loose and jangly but expressionistic. They communicate an inner conflict that’s desperate to break free from the body’s physical restrictions.
Tove begins at the end of World War II when Jansson is 30 years old. Part of Helsinki, where she lives, has been bombed down to rubble. In search of a room of her own, she moves out of her parents’ house into a rundown but airy, top floor flat. Her first gallery show displays a collection of her modern abstract paintings. The work is pretty but ephemeral. After the gallery opening, she finds out the Finnish government doesn’t offer her an artist’s grant. They give it to her father instead. There is one woman though who liked her paintings enough to commission Tove with an illustration.
Vivica (Krista Kosonen) strides into every room with the kind of confidence and hauteur that beauty and wealth can instill in a person. She’s a theater director who lives in her family’s manse on the edge of town. Until Vivica walks into her life, Tove has been content canoodling with the married Atos (Shanti Roney). Their ongoing affair has been casual but steady. Over the years, they develop a loving, supportive friendship. Vivica, however, is a different beast altogether. Tove compares her to an all-consuming dragon.
Their passionate but unhappy romantic liaison leads to a happier professional one. Vivica encourages Tove to write a play about the Moomintroll sketches. The Finns go wild for her stable of fantastic creatures. From that debut, Jansson reluctantly accepts the world’s increasing fascination with her fictional universe. As the movie winds down, Bergroth introduces us to Tove’s future longtime companion, but their relationship is only suggested. After she slays the dragon, Tove rightly concentrates on Jansson’s creative and personal liberation. By the end, thanks to Pöysti’s performance, even the meaning of the Moomintroll stories make more sense. She illuminates every aspect of Tove’s artistic, idiosyncratic, endearing soul.
Tove is now playing at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center and Shattuck Cinemas and the Smith Rafael Film center.