Tove: Life Removed, by Scott Nye
Zaida Bergroth’s Tove takes an interesting gambit and finds a distinctly uninteresting path to take with it. A biopic of renowned cartoonist Tove Jansson (played by Alma Pöysti), it spends very little time dissecting how or why her famous creation, the Moomins books and comic strip, came into being. It’s not particularly invested in the psychology behind their creation, the way their famous design developed, or what their success meant to her. It tosses all of this off as almost nothing – “the money is nice,” she remarks later when asked. Whole industries – a 7-year comic strip deal, a theatrical production – seem to spring up almost without her doing anything. For a franchise as beloved as this, it’s an unusually brave approach, often alluding to Tove’s embarrassment over its success, and disinterest in its intricate world at all. By all means, let’s focus on the person, not on what they’re known for.
Unfortunately, the film finds little else to flesh her out. Near the start, she is hungry for as much life experience as she can draw, but that life experience seems to come down to sleeping with a few strange men, and eventually a strange woman. The woman in question, Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen), is a marginally-dissatisfied theatrical director who longs to live in Paris and who we really don’t ever get to know that well beyond Kosonen’s sharp glances and wild air about her. But Tove is obsessed with her, and pretty much the rest of the movie flattens a once-vivid character into a lovesick melancholic.
Certainly, love can flatten even the most electric people, I just don’t buy it in Jansson’s case. She would later meet another woman and spend the rest of her life with her – they even built an entire house on a remote, uninhabited island together. The documentary footage we see of this time at the end of this film, which is just a snippet of the hours of footage available in other documentaries, suggests that she was quite happy and free there. Certainly, one doesn’t want to discount that the period this film covers is the one most marked by heartache, and that this period doesn’t define her, and so on and so forth, which then begs the question as to why develop so narrow a focus at all? Whatever’s engaging about Tove the Sad Artist is not brought out here. Pöysti is reduced to staring at the floor and giving forced smiles.
And this isn’t just a down period of the film – this is really the whole second half. However Tove breaks herself out of this funk, we only get the scarcest indication. The whole film emerges as tepid, scarcely interested in her creative life beyond stating again and again that she wants to be known as more than a cartoonist, and scarcely interested in her personal life outside of this one lost love that she’s constantly trying to make up for. The film is further inhibited by Linda Wassberg’s half-hearted cinematography and Bergroth’s obligatory direction, neither of which grant a single scene any life beyond the barest narrative purpose it could offer. A few music cues to transition eras do their best to tell the audience “stuff is happening!!!” but the filmmaking is much more revealing about its own limitations. And there are few things more dispiriting than an unimaginative film about someone as fascinating and creative as Tove Jansson.