We rarely recognize the most formative moments in our lives at the time of their occurrence. Seeking cover during an air raid during the second world war, young artist Tove Jansson (Alma Pöysti) escapes her circumstance by doodling; the whimsical creatures will later evolve into the Moomins, a creation that eventually comes to define her.
Tove exists in the towering shadow of her father, Victor (Robert Enckell), a well-respected Finnish sculptor whose presence is oppressive as it is inspirational. When he deigns to remove himself from his fertile artist’s headspace, it’s to mete out criticism of Tove’s doodles, declaring that they’re not true “art”. In her silence you see his influence: she’s taken his words to heart, and such limiting artistic snobbery will take her decades to unlearn. Tove knows she’ll never find her own artistic identity while under his roof, so she rents a bombed-out apartment at a rock-bottom price and transforms it into a bohemian sanctuary with the tenacious strength of her own hands.
It’s a tired misconception that the 1940s were sexually straight-laced. In reality, members of the Greatest Generation were just as bold and exploratory as we think ourselves to be; they just didn’t discuss the subject as candidly. Tove grasps at post-war life with the kind of passion that is borne from communal trauma. She has a tender affair with a married socialist politician, Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney), whose wife is fully aware of their dalliance. At her first major exhibition, the mayor’s statuesque daughter Vivica (Krista Kosonen) tries to commission work that Tove sees as frivolous. Her sense of identity is so intertwined with her painting that only the threat of unpaid rent and missed meals is enough to make her reconsider. This decision leads to a passionate night between the two women, then evolves into a one-sided love affair that lingers for years.
Director Zaida Bergroth deftly handles the biopic genre with a firm but gentle touch, examining the critical post-war years of Tove Jansson’s life with an unsentimental empathy. Vivica’s influence is as monolithic as Tove’s father’s, and she is just as cool with her affection. Unlike Victor, she sees the hidden gold mine in the quirky Moomin doodles he dismissed, and presses Tove to create more. Born bourgeoisie, Vivica lingers in the periphery of the artistic world, directing theater productions as a way into the vibrant artist underground. She presses Tove to write her a play, then repays the favor by seducing another woman (many in a long line of similar conquests) on the eve of its opening night. Despite this pattern of behavior, and the financial chasm between them, Tove can’t expunge her love for Vivica; the heart wants what it wants.
Alma Pöysti is wonderful in the titular role. We ache when Tove’s light is further dimmed by the realization that her dream of becoming a painter has evaporated, or when she struggles to move past the lingering hope that Vivica will reciprocate her love. A story that could have quickly succumbed to common themes about the dreams that are lost with age is instead a bitter-sweet celebration of a life, though imperfect, still lived to its fullest and with learned lessons accompanying regrets.
This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival.