In the Eye of the Beholder
2008 // Sweden // Jan Troell // May 2, 2009 // Theatrical Print
B - Fundamentally, I am a sucker for any film that approaches the romantic impulse as an agonizing phenomenon that bears unbearably fragile dividends, when it bears anything at all save tears. For me, there is something unaccountably attractive in the bliss of thwarted love. It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that Everlasting Moments, Jan Troell's scrupulously reverent tale of stifled artistic expression and romance, proved to be emotionally engrossing despite its schematic narrative and discursive character. The relationship between Swedish housewife and amateur photographer Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen) and camera shopkeeper Sebastian Pedersen (Jesper Christensen) is tragic, succulent stuff. Their unconsummated love, exquisitely formal yet accented with moments of profound tenderness, is so plainly rife with repressed yearnings and resentments that it's a wonder mere Scandinavian starch can restrain such ache. In part, familial obligations keep the couple apart, but it wouldn't be a textbook romantic tragedy without a violent and jealous spouse, a role played here by Maria's mercurial, monstrous husband Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt). It's not sufficient that Sigfrid restrain Maria within a living hell of drunkenness, infidelity, abuse, and murderous threats. He also attempts to quash her blossoming creative longings behind the camera, a desire that serves as both a gateway to and an expression of her feelings for the gentle Sebastian. Love doesn't come much more virtuous—or more doomed—than this.
Maria Larsson was a real photographer to whom Troell's wife is distantly related, and her relatively obscure work served as a source for this film. Maria's daughter Maya (Nellie Almgren as a girl, Callin Öhrvall as young woman) narrates the tale of her mother's middle age, when a hitherto unexplored interest in commercial and artistic photography took hold of her. Emotionally, the film is focused on Maria's entrapment in a situation, place, and time that stifles joy and dishes out endless cruelties. Yet Troell can't resist slathering on all sorts of period digressions, and as a result the film often feels less like a biography and more like an expansive panorama of early twentieth-century Sweden. Disease, accidents, rape, strikes, the Great War, and other calamities intrude on the proceedings, and all are afforded an unusual amount of time given how little they add to Everlasting Moments' core narrative. One suspects that Troell loads the film up with such detail as an act of fidelity to Maria's life story. Thus we get subplots such as Sigfied's short-lived dedication to socialism and his entanglement in a bombing plot targeting British strikebreakers. Some liberal trimming would have lent the film's fundamental tragedy—a woman's discovery of her creative voice late in life—much greater potency.
Still, Troell and cinematographer Mischa Gavrjusjov capture even the film's unwarranted tangents with an indisputable loveliness. Shot on 16 mm and blown up to 35 mm, Everlasting Moments replicates the smudged, grainy look of Maria's playing-card-sized sepia photographic prints. However, the lightning and design are so consistently striking that the film still somehow seems crisp, eschewing the grimy visual muddle that so often afflicts period dramas. The film's title points to the obvious thematic significance of the indelible yet fleeting image within Maria's story, but Troell also demonstrates his own sensitivity to this phenomenon, often in the most unexpected places. Hence, he graces us with the film's most haunting shot: a girl's resolute and baffling march out onto a mist-shrouded and frozen sea. The otherworldly chill of this image visually complements Maria's spying of a distant Sebastian as he ambles through summer greenery. This latter shot is then repeated, reinforcing the story's morbid undercurrents and highlighting the comparable pains of romantic loss and death. Lest the film devolve into a sequence of hideous tragedies (as it often threatens to do), Troell engages in a bit of spirited horsing from time to time, as when Maria and her children smudge ashen Chaplin mustaches on themselves and waddle about like the Little Tramp in a fit of post-cinematic delight.
Many of Everlasting Moments' weaknesses and even some of its bright spots melt away under the sway of Heiskanen and Christensen, who lend the film a humanistic pulse whenever they are on screen together. I hesitate to use the term "erotic" to describe the interactions of two characters that barely have any physical contact and are discomfited by the casualness of first names. The film's most sensual moment, after all, involves Sebastian demonstrating the principle of the camera obscura by projecting the silhouette of a butterfly onto Maria's palm. The eroticism that Everlasting Moments offers is the type that springs from shared joy when the surrounding circumstances are otherwise harsh and loveless. The sort of eroticism, in other words, that we could easily imagine holding two ordinary people hostage in early twentieth century Europe. Heiskanen and Christensen capture this delicate emotional condition marvelously, her with weary apprehension and him with fussy courtesy. Their relationship—and its ultimately squandered potential for happiness—is the emotional core of the film, and all the time Troell devotes to other characters seems like so much noodling. Persbrandt's narcissistic, domineering husband is so cartoonishly dim and two-faced as written that he has no hope of evolving into a coherent character. He serves strictly as a foil to burnish the virtues of the not-quite-lovers. And while Maya might be the story's ostensible narrator, do we really need a subplot about the lascivious brother of her employer? When it can maintain its attention on the flaring and slow guttering of Maria's passions, Everlasting Moments is pure, bittersweet pleasure.