Tove is an engaging glimpse into the bisexual life of Tove Jansson, known for the wonderful Moomins. Zaida Bergroth’s biopic is a personal take on Jansson and one that enchants you early on, thanks to Alma Pöysti’s careful performance.
Exploring her early years as a struggling artist in Helsinki, shunned by the artistic establishment, Tove parties hard with the intelligentsia and fails to live up to her sculptor father’s high artistic expectations. At her first solo exhibition, she meets the married theatre director Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen), their attraction to each other obvious. A passionate love affair ensues, which nourishes Tove’s creativity and soon, her most famous creation takes the world by storm.
Tove continually lives in the shadows of her renowned sculptor father, Victor (Robert Enckell), who derides his daughter for not keeping the focus of her painting career despite their bohemian upbringing. Even when she does, he criticises her choices for her shows. She is in a lose-lose situation with him unless she does everything that he dictates. Frustrated by him, she makes a go for it on her own, finding a bombed apartment that she has to fix herself. This becomes her haven for the next decade or so.
This seemingly sexually liberated (in private) world has Tove finding love the already married Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney), who connect over her drawings, making fun of Hitler previously while at a party. As their open affair continues, at Tove’s art exhibition, she meets the alluring Vivica who attempts to hire Tove for a commission for her father, who just so happens to be the mayor. As the two flirt and their relationship become more, she tries to inform Atos of her feelings for Vivica in a wonderful little metaphor. Atos full of pain, but understanding accepts that while he is the only man Tove can love, Vivica is the woman she also wants to love.
As we watch this one-sided same-sex relationship, Vivica states at one point to Tove that they are ghosts, and that rings very true for LGBTQ people of this era. While they were out in public that had to keep true to the time’s conformities, they are, in fact, ghosts of themselves; their soul isn’t fully there when they are out in public. Only when the doors are closed or around those, they trust that their fully formed selves come out. This perfect analogy for forced closeted people rings throughout. Instead of not caring, they can only steal kisses when in public, flirt in coded ways, thus creating a secret language that becomes the point of Moomin characters Thingummy and Bob.
While obviously a biopic, Tove’s relationships with Atos and Vivica feel real, which is the key to the success of the film. The trio performances allow us to fall for Tove and Atos’s idea while always being unsure of her relationship with Vivica, who is too indulgent to make a proper relationship with Tove work despite the magnetic feeling both have for one another.
Bergroth deftly captures Tove’s story with a sensitive and loving touch. This loving touch gives the film light, and thanks to a script that doesn’t feel like it needs to give breakdowns to the smallest of details. We can cover a large portion of Tove’s life without feeling shortchanged. With the Director of Photography, Linda Wassberg, we always feel at home with these characters. Wide shots are rarely called for; we are usually close in on our subjects. Roving around with a handheld camera in their rooms or apartments exploring their world and gravitates you fully to the piece that many biopics fall to do.
Other than the cast, the true star of the show is the production design. Be it from Victors art studio and home to the continually evolving apartment that Tove rents, you feel as if you live in this time with the characters. That coupled with the on-point costume design with inklings of alterations as the years go by. Tove would not be the same film if it wasn’t for Catharina Nyqvist Ehrnrooth and Eugen Tamberg.
At Tove’s heart, it is a film about love and the acceptance of loss; as we go through the years with Tove, we see her lose many things, be it her aspirations to become a well-known artist like her father or her failure in loving Atos enough and loving Vivica too much. She feels at times that she is a failure in a lot of regards, especially artistically. By having to venture towards her doodles for income, she fears the loss of respect from her father and others from the art scene. But she needs the money and packing those away to work on what, maybe not fulfils her but keeps her financially secure.
Tove, while usually around others in some form, always seems to be alone spiritually. She may have two lovers and one that she could partner with for the rest of her life and have some semblance of happiness. But, she never seems complete. She thinks she is with Vivica, or at least could be, but Vivica isn’t her soulmate. Like her art career, she yearns for a connection.
This is a wonderful film, full to the brim with warmth and becomes something that will make you want to delve more into the life of Jansson. By taking a more expressive look at this period in Jansson’s life, Tove becomes an enveloping joy.
To view more of our coverage of BFI Flare, please check out our other reviews below.
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