Review: Tove (Dir. Zaida Bergroth, 2020)

It is hard not to picture Tove Jansson (1914-2001), as a shyly smiling, jumper-clad woman pushing 70, windswept or chain-smoking on her island of Klovharun. Zaida Bergroth’s charming new film seeks to expand upon that image and expose more about the woman, artist, writer and Moomins creator. What’s in a name? Tove [Too-veh]. Such a diminutive old Norse word meaning ‘beautiful thunder’ and so obviously close to the English spelling of love, and boy did she ever. It appears to have been the driving force of her whole life’s wonderful adventure.

Tove focusses on three specific time periods 1944, ’47 and ’52 as Jansson navigates her artistic struggles, successes, love and loss. Beginning during war-time – after a brief and lively opening vignette – 30-year-old Tove (Alma Pöysti) sketches as bombs sound around her. It immediately establishes place, time and general mood as life, in Helsinki, begins again. There’s more disagreement with her famous sculptor-father Viktor (Robert Enckell) in which he once again attempts to dismiss her work and instil his artistic merit upon her. Apparently, her drawings do not constitute as ‘art’ – and she even describes herself as a “a bleak shadow of his genius” when eyebrows raise at the sound of her surname.

She leaves the family home and rents a dilapidated space ravaged by the war, missing windows, heat and electricity in order to gain her independence and create. Living, loving, working and sleeping in one large room. While Tove’s frustrations are evident, she continually strives to push herself without ever fully realising her artistic success and as the years advance, how beloved she will become. From her solo art exhibitions, tenure as a visual artist on GARM magazine to her publications of Moomins stories and weekly comic strips in the Evening News, all are given some attention here. As are her love stories, for there are many. Affection surrounds her via her graphic designer mother Signe (Kajsa Ernst), brother Lars (Wilhelm Enckell), fellow artists Sam Vanni (Jakob Öhrman) and Maya Vanni (played by the film’s screenwriter Eeva Putro) – but none more impactful during this time than her lovers, journalist-cum-MP Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney) and theatre director Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen). It is their relationships which allow for personal and professional growth, and which sets her on the path to meeting the love of her life.

While Tove’s lifestyle trangressed the conventional, the film seeks to normalise it in the same vein as Carol (2015) and Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017). Depicting a time when society refused to accept the existence of the queer community. There was huge risk involved, Finland wasn’t always so advanced in relation to LGBTQIA+ rights. The decriminalisation of homosexuality did not occur until 1971 and then it, and lesbianism, (there was no word for pansexuality then either) was considered a diagnosed ‘illness’ for another decade after. Tove’s bravery to live authentically is the film’s main focus.

Whether you consider Jansson a pansexual radical or not remains to be seen – though when one thinks of the themes and amorphous gender identities embedded within the Moomin stories and the many satirical caricatures in print by her hand over the years, she was. Bona fide. Yet what we do get here is a fully-formed, credible version of her and that’s largely due to Alma Pöysti’s wonderful performance. No stranger to Jansson, she first portrayed her on stage in 2017.

Resemblance aside, her Tove is a joy: fierce, child-like, funny, wicked and supremely talented. People are drawn to her sunny disposition. Which is often literal as she is bathed in light, yellow and golds emitting a halo of warmth around her head and making her face glow. At times Tove is the burst of colour within a frame of muted dullness while at others, primary colours flood scenes, with the room décor matching Tove’s costumes -beautifully designed by Eugen Tamberg – the fabrics of which are often reminiscent of illustrations which are in and adorn the Moomin books.

This attention to detail and use of light and tone is gorgeous and make Catherine Nyquist Ehrnrooth’s production design and Linda Wassberg’s cinematography sing. All cherry-topped with Mattie Bye’s eclectic soundtrack which brings together the likes of Josephine Baker, Edith Piaf, Glenn Miller and the more contemporary Mambo noir trio amongst his own compositions. Dancing was incredibly important in Moominland and it seems only fitting that Tove has her own recurring motif when she goes to bust a move in the form of Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing which bookends the film rapturously.

Little has changed in regards to the discourse surrounding art and the preoccupation with dictating who can create and what (but that’s a patriarchy for you). Declaring one form as somehow superior to the other was just as ludicrous as it is now; art is art just as love is love, and thankfully while it clearly gave her pause, it never stopped her. Jansson began providing illustrations for GARM at fifteen and continued until 1953, her work found its way into publications of The Hobbit and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. She authored five novels and seven short story collections which followed the seventeen works (including novels, short stories, picture books and comic strips) featuring her beloved Moomins.

It is heart-breaking in those moments when she considers herself a failed artist, and dismisses the stories and sketches as “just for children”. Especially when she worked so tirelessly on the drawings and placed herself and each and every person she loved within the pages, constantly using words and pictures to express her feelingswhether they were separated or not. Moomintroll became her alter-ego (“Love makes Moomintroll brave”), Atos became Snufkin, Vivica/Vifslan – Jansson was able to code their love in the symbiosis of Toflslan and Vifslan (known as Thingumy and Bob) – and her partner of 46 years Tuulikki Pietilä (Joanna Haartti) the inspiration for Too-Ticky. Staggeringly, on top of all of that, she still found the time to write some 92,000 letters (by hand) to her ‘darlings’. This connection between art and love is rendered beautifully in the film whether through the re-painting of a canvas in stifling white, the creation of a fresco mural, or new love triggering a portrait in oils.

Tove is a sumptuous celebration of an inspirational and adventurous life. It intimately re-creates just eight years in the life of an iconic artist and the genesis in the creation of a cultural legacy. A beautiful thunder clap that lived with courage, curiosity, and passion, and one who loved fiercely and honestly.

Tove is in cinemas 9 July from Blue Finch Film Releasing

Film Festival Review

Review: Jumbo (Dir. Zoé Wittock (2020)

Jeanne (Noémie Merlant) – age undetermined – lives with her maman Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot). They are the mother and daughter equivalent of chalk and cheese but both still wounded slightly since their respective husband and father left. We are never given the details but indications suggest it was acrimonious and he did a number on both of them. Margarette seeks companionship with whichever bloke she takes a fancy to from work behind a bar and Jeanne happily tinkers with her creations/ machinations behind closed doors whenever she isn’t working nights at an amusement park.

The anti-social nature of her job – rubbish collecting in solitude – long after all paying customers have vacated the premises suits her down to the ground. She is painfully shy, a little anxious with her cute Amélie-style-bob and the pervading silence that accompanies her. She prefers to keep her head down, mouth shut and cloak herself in her own social awkwardness and quiet. Jeanne has absolutely no idea of her own attraction to men, swamping herself in baggy clothes, bright blue headphones blocking out the outside world. Ops Manager Marc (Bastien Bouillon) falls for her anyway. Her mother, on the other hand is overly loud, a little brash and brimming with confidence – a “bundle of joy”. Their relationship is fractious, with the absent partner/parent the push and pull, he’s the insult slung between them when they want to hurt the other or lash out. Then Jeanne meets Jumbo.

Image copyright: WILLIAMK

With its red and white stripe design, the fairground ride aptly resembles a piece of rock and Jeanne finds safety in its six huge mechanical arms, choosing to sit astride its dormant structure and spit-clean ‘his’ multitude of raised red bulbs with her hanky. To the more closed mind, the electrics could be shorting but to Jeanne, it/he appears to communicate with her – and she does most of her chatting while with him. For all intents and purposes, he understands her and she gives herself willingly, even falls in love, their sex scene reminiscent of the feeding scene in Under the Skin, only with the sea of blackness giving way to bright white purity as she is dripped in black viscous lubricant. It’s not too much of a stretch to conflate the exhilarating screams of pleasure and excitement experienced during a body-flinging Waltzer, or the dizzying heights of a ride on a Big One.

What follows is an astonishing performance from Merlant who completely sells the emotional, for want of a better word, rollercoaster that is all-consuming love; the joy, jubilation, soul-destroying confusing and rejection (culminating in some excellent ugly-crying over baked goods). The inevitable clash between mother and daughter over the new partner ensues, the kink-shaming starts because people can be cruel about that which transgresses the norm, and immediately condemn what they don’t understand. That the love is never in doubt in Jeanne’s eyes is what makes this such a convincing little film.

Wittock depicts the very real Objectum-sexuality (OS) empathetically. There have been women who have vowed to love, honour and cherish the Berlin Wall, Eiffel Tower, a San Diego train station, and Le Pont du Diable respectively. Tracey Emin even married a stone in 2015. Yet it is Floridian Linda Ducharme who married Bruce in 2013 after a thirty-year courtship (Bruce is a Ferris Wheel) which is the suggested inspiration here and the ‘true story’ checked in the opening credits.

Image copyright: WILLIAMK

While Jumbo may start out more than a little sci-fi thanks mainly to Thomas Buelen’s cinematography and the use of neon lights, and synthy-buzzes on Thomas Roussel’s soundtrack, it is successful in making the switch from the surreal to a charming offbeat love story (as much about Margarette and Jeanne as Jeanne and Jumbo). The ending which initially feels rather abrupt is lovely and joyous – how else could you end a film about love, intimacy and connection? Perhaps it lands differently mid-pandemic having been locked away from people we would normally be able to touch and adore freely but whatever your mind set, love is love no matter the form it takes.

Jumbo is in UK and Irish cinemas from 9th July


Review: Animals (Dir. Sophie Hyde, 2019)

Laura is 32 (Holliday Grainger) and has spent the last decade writing a novel, and still only achieved ten pages of content. It’s about a spider caught in its own web and the woman – one in love with the idea of being in love – who tries to rescue it. An analogy for the ages it has to be said. Laura lives with her best friend, Tyler (Alia Shawkat) who learns of her father’s death at the start of Animals (and just prior to her thirtieth birthday). While we never learn much more, it’s safe to assume there is no love lost there.

Taking its inspiration from the pages of Emma Jane Unsworth’s Manchester-based novel of the same name (she adapted her own work for the screen), the film plays out like a long extended night out complete with wraps of coke, gallons of Sauvignon and several brain-mushing hangovers. As for plot, there isn’t much of one per se as Laura and Tyler navigate their drunken, oft directionless way through life and the pressures that society places upon women (and ergo themselves) to conform to this ideal model of womanhood, i.e. successful, a wife, a mother, settled, and that darn necessity to ‘behave’.

Gladly, neither do, and what could have been a one-note comedy about women seeking love – Laura flirts with it briefly after meeting talented pianist Jim (Fra Fee) – children, marriage and ‘finding their way’ actually becomes that little bit darker. Do women have to settle for all of these things if they’re not deemed successful in a career? This film says nope, and acts instead as a celebration of women, their flaws – bad decisions and all – the complexities of female friendship and a glorious defiance against expectation.

While the novel’s location is replaced by the fair city of Dublin – Manchester is represented in the form of screenwriter Unsworth and Grainger – it loses nothing as the Irish capital is a wonderful alternative, fusing art, nightlife and creativity, and is just as inspirational as the themes it presents. It also acts as a perfect city buffer/juxtaposition to the suburbs; a place which has no sound; “they sell it as peace but really it’s death.” The recurring images of foxes and cats also fail to be seen in the suburbs – animals which nod not only to the film’s title but also act as visual representations of our leading ladies; on the prowl, sometimes feral, independent creatures surviving.

There’s a wonderful moment when Laura, Tyler and Marty the Poet (Dermot Murphy) are standing against a wall outside of a house and he asks the question: “What’s an animal’s primary need?” All three answer differently – food, sex and safety. That’s what the film is about, searching for your primary need outside of expectation, looking for shelter within yourself and longing to be exactly who you are without of all the exterior noise, whether that be ‘society’ or the unsolicited opinion of your best bud.

The film depicts loneliness and the pathos that goes with it in a compelling way; as a fight for independence and inspiration while embracing hedonism.. It’s funny and furious and led by a couple of splendid performances. Grainger proves she has more than (lovely) cheekbones and a pout to her repertoire and quite the emotional dexterity to inhabit a leading role and Shawkat, who is widely known for more comic roles brings a poignancy to Tyler’s acerbic wit. The character is a staunch feminist who refuses to acknowledge how lost she actually is, while ensuring her thoughts on everything are expressed and heard. There’s even an old Hollywood glamour to her character and her costumes (gorgeously designed by Renate Henschke), as if she is lost in time in this, a delightful depiction of modern femininity.

Animals is a breath of fresh air. It depicts fully rounded characters who are empathetic and credible in a current climate where women are having to defend their rights to choose how they live. It’s an insightful, fun and defiant celebration of female friendship and creativity (made by a largely female crew under Sophie ’52 Tuesdays’ Hyde’s direction), finding your place in the world and not settling. Emma Jane Unsworth’s next novel is called Adults. Although not a sequel, perhaps the animal phase comes after tween, coming-of-age with full maturation (allegedly) hitting at, say, 40.

Film Festival Review

Review: Carol (Dir. Todd Haynes, 2015)

LFF 2015

Patricia Highsmith has always written credible males. Her themes of masculinity, love and murder have thrilled audiences for decades both in the literary and filmic world. Carol, (originally published as The Price of Salt under a pseudonym) could not be further from the likes of Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley or The Two Faces of January. Here, protagonists are female and the thrilling cat-and-mouse chase becomes a different kind of pursuit in this superbly told love story.

Not only a love story between two women but Carol looks at the heartbreak of a mother separated from her child amid an acrimonious divorce and the sexual politics of the fifties sheds light on the limitations of women and their role in both the home and society. Haynes is a master of the period and shoots women beautifully. He appears to understand them, intuit their strengths, weaknesses, whims and nuances. He is also notorious for getting the finest performances out of his leading ladies – Julianne Moore (Far From Heaven), Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce) and now Rooney Mara. Make no mistake that while she may play the titular character and gives a stunning performance, Cate Blanchett is out-classed at every turn by Mara.

Much like Haynes’ previous work, there is a reverential Sirkian quality to this drama. The highly stylised mise-en-scène appears as if belonging to a live-action Edward Hopper or Norman Rockwell painting. The attention to detail makes for hazy viewing; the colours are rich, the costumes are resplendent and Carter Burwell’s gorgeous score sets the melancholic yet triumphant tone. Carol is an intricate, heart-swelling amour fou which depicts the mesmeric, insanity and beauty of love.


Carol is out on UK cinema release on 27th November.