It’s been quite fashionable lately to make a movie about someone who was a secret lesbian. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen one at every single TIFF I’ve ever attended, and I’m happy to say that despite the enormous hurdles of 2020, this year was no exception. But not all closet lesbians are created equal. Stories can be shared, truth can be told, but not all of them are worth of the screen, nor are they necessarily compelling once they’re there.
You know what I’m about to say. It’s 1944 in Helsinki. The end of the war means an injection of creative and perhaps even personal freedom for painter Tove Jansson (Alma Pöysti), who at this time still introduces herself as the pale shadow of her famous father’s talent. She’s painting a lot but paintings don’t pay the rent (and believe me, she’s tried).
At the same lunch where she confesses to her lover Atos (Shanti Roney) that she’s just slept with a woman, he convinces her to illustrate a comic strip for his unprofitable socialist newspaper. It would be worth a bit of coin, and as a bonus, would annoy her father. She doesn’t need much more convincing than that. Atos is surprisingly complacent about the other bit of news, and he’s not about to chuck out their friendship over it, even as the relationship between Tove and Vivica (Krista Kosonen) deepens. Vivica is a bit of a wondering soul though, and perhaps not courageous enough to return Tove’s love, so she leaves for Paris, and she leaves Tove to her art.
You may or may not know that Tove Jonsson’s little cartoons, based on some intimate moments between herself and Vivica, as well as the stories she told to soothe scared children in the bomb shelters, were turned into the beloved Moomin books. What was meant as a bit of side work to support her serious art eventually meant financial freedom and acclaim. Which are hardly consolation prizes for unrequited love.
Despite what may sound like a life worth commemorating, I found Tove to be painfully dull. The story did not compel me, and amounted to little more than plucky little lesbians dancing. The only reason I kept watching at all was Alma Pöysti’s beguiling screen presence. Unfortunately, though Tove may have led a remarkable life, director Zaida Bergroth seems to have drained it of its vital life force. Long before Instagram, Tove struggled with the discrepancy between reality and expectation. She made compromises personally and professionally; she had regrets and broken hearts. She disappointed some, and delighted others. Sometimes the ordinary feels extraordinary in the right director’s hands. Tove is still looking for hers.