Category: Finnish Cinema

Tove (Finland-Sweden 2020)

Still not comfortable about returning to cinemas but wanting to see a new/recent release I watched this film streaming on BFI Player. I knew little about the Moomins and even less about their creator Tove Jansson, but I’d heard a couple of good things about this part-biopic. It’s fair to say that I was bowled over by the performance of Alma Pöysti in the title role and I very much enjoyed the story set in the immediate post-war years of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The committed artist

Tove Jansson is a woman approaching 30 when the narrative begins, living in Helsinki and sheltering from Russian air raids before the end of the ‘Continuation War’ with the USSR in September 1944. A trained artist who has studied in both Finland and abroad, Tove is still dominated by her father, the sculptor Viktor Jansson who is supported by state and local commissions. She lives at home with her mother Signe, a graphic artist, and her younger brother Lars as well as her father. Her first move is to find a room in a bombed house and renovate it before pursuing her painting and graphics work. The narrative that develops has three strands which are woven together over the next ten years. One is the family drama involving her father on one side and her mother and brother on the other as Tove seeks her independence as a ‘visual artist’. The second strand, focusing on her artistic visions sees the development of her ‘visual storytelling’ which involves the creation of the Moomins, something which actually started several years before the film narrative begins. Finally, there is an intense romance that develops with Vivica Bandler, a wealthy married woman, and in the background an equally strong but less sexually charged relationship with Atos, a married man and socialist editor/publisher. The surprise for audiences may be that these relationships take up more screen time than the artistic practice and the development of the Moomin world. Having said that, all three strands are strongly connected. Tove’s love for Vivica is unrequited but Vivica is a genuine supporter as well as an exciting sexual partner. She spots the ‘special’ qualities of the Moomin drawings and will help promote them by staging a theatrical adaptation. Atos is important as a socialist and a true friend and lover in every way. Tove is, in the language of the period, a true ‘bohemian’ but she still needs friends like Atos.

Tove with Atos . . .

. . . and with Vivica

I realised as the film progressed that I did know something about the Moomins, the ‘soft’ creatures that live in a secluded valley. At one point in the narrative we see and hear Tove speaking English and agreeing to produce a regular comic strip for The Evening News in London. This started in 1954 and continued until 1975. I usually bought the Standard, but I must have seen the Moomins strip in The News, though I didn’t learn about its creator until many years later. It’s not surprising that Tove was able to speak several languages. Her family was part of the Swedish minority in Finland and she had studied at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. But little of Tove’s background is included in the film. It is alluded to only as necessary for the central narrative. The film is being promoted as a lesbian romance and its first UK appearance was in the BFI Flare Festival for LGBTQ+ cinema. I found myself identifying strongly with Tove and I think that it’s important for the narrative that it concludes in the mid-1950s when Tove has just met the woman with whom she’ll spend the rest of her life. The end credits include ‘home movie’ footage of the real Tove dancing al fresco with her new lover.

The theatre show devised by Vivica and Tove

There have been some criticisms of the film. It is in narrative terms quite conventional and that often provokes a reaction as if films need to be ‘difficult’ to be worthwhile. Perhaps more to the point is the charge that because it only focuses on part of the life, we don’t get the full impact that her early and later experiences have on her development as an artist .Also, this means that we don’t have time to fully explore the creativity in the presentation of the Moomins world. Beyond the fact that her father is obstructive and that both Atos and Vivika are encouraging we learn relatively little about why the Moomins become such an international success. I suspect that is something the fans in the audience might miss. It’s particularly an issue in the UK perhaps where graphic artists/storytellers are still not properly accepted by cultural commentators, though it is better I think than in the 1950s-70s (and I note that Tove Jansson’s paintings were exhibited in the UK in 2016). These kinds of criticism are inevitable with biopics and to include everything is impossible, even if the final film was twice the length (this one is 103 minutes and the Press Kit mentions a 117 minute director’s cut). One of the other criticisms is that the artists’ parties and the alternative lifestyles of the period are too clichéd. I actually enjoyed the parties and they looked realistic/authentic to me. I particularly liked the music (especially Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’) and Tove’s enthusiastic and wild dancing. There is a good selection of songs to complement Matti Bye’s more muted score.

Tove puts on a show for Vivica

I hope I’ve suggested many reasons why Tove is well worth watching. That central performance is really something. I think I was particularly drawn towards Alma Pöysti by what I perceived to be her ‘naturalness’ or authenticity. I liked her best without make-up and hair styling when she is working as a ‘free spirit’. I understand that she is a theatre actor and that she has done voicework on Moomin animations. Part of her freshness is that she is not presented as a film star. Krista Kosonen as Vivica and Swedish actor Shanti Roney are both experienced film and TV actors and very good second leads, but it’s Alma Pöysti’s film. This is director Zaida Bergroth’s fifth feature and she leads a production crew with several women in significant production roles including Linda Wassberg as cinematographer and Catharina Nyqvist Ehrnrooth as production designer. The script is by Eeva Putro who is also an accomplished actor and plays one of Tove’s friends. Andrea Reuter shares the production credit with Aleksi Bardy. The film’s budget of €3.6 million makes it one of the most expensive Finnish films. Shooting on 16mm film is argued to give the images the right texture for a presentation of the period. It’s difficult to confirm that on a computer screen but the film looked good to me. This is one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

One final note. The film has been given a 12 rating in the UK. At last we now seem able to tolerate a few glimpses of naked body parts without everyone worrying about frightening younger teenagers. I do wonder though, with teenage smoking increasing what the impact of such heavy smoking characters might be. You can watch Tove on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema.

Lights in the Dusk (Laitakaupungin valot, Finland-Germany-France-Italy-Sweden 2006)

Janne Hyytiäinen as Koistinen – the smoking in this film is seemingly de rigueur

This is the final film in the trilogy about ‘losers’ from Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki following Drifting Clouds (1996) and The Man Without a Past (2002). In some ways it might be the darkest of the three, especially if you find ‘miserable’ characters hard to follow. On the other hand, this is perhaps the ‘purest’ downbeat character you are likely to meet. Another way to think of the trilogy is as narratives successively about joblessness, homelessness and here loneliness. Seppo Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) barely raises a smile and takes every disaster that befalls him on the chin. He doesn’t betray anyone (when perhaps, for the good of the society, he should) and he retains an iron determination to ‘make it’ eventually. Buster Keaton’s screen persona comes to mind – which isn’t so surprising in the world of Kaurismäki narratives. But in the Press Notes Kaurismäki refers to a ‘Chaplinesque’ character.

Koistinen (as most people call him, if they can remember his name at all) lives in a bare apartment close to the liminal space that is the Helsinki docklands. He works nights as a security guard for a company covering a major shopping mall. On his way home he stops at a late night food stall close to the water where he passes a few words with the woman who runs it. He has no friends and his work ‘colleagues’ ignore him. Occasionally he buys a vodka or a coffee in a bar and drinks it alone. But he has been spotted by a gangster who sends his ‘moll’ Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi) to seduce Koistinen and to use him to get the necessary information to enable a robbery. The gangster knows that it will be possible to frame Koistinen for the robbery and that he won’t tell the police about the girl and will accept his own guilt. All this comes to pass and the unrelenting awfulness is only relieved by a small attempted good deed which Koistinen carries out – and which of course backfires on him. This deed will not, however, be ignored and will save him in the end. In Kaurismäki’s films (or at least in the ones I’ve seen), there are still pockets of human feeling whatever the attempts of late capitalism to destroy them all. Kaurismäki refers to himself in this way:

Luckily for him, the film’s author has a reputation as a kindhearted old man, so hopefully a spark of hope will light up the final scene.

Koistinen with Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi), the woman who inveigles him into taking her out

Kaurismäki’s films have found audiences around the world and generated critical acclaim, not because of the events they portray or even the ideas they explore (though both are important in his other films). Instead it is the style and the overall ‘feel’ of the presentation that is important and what this conveys is a dry wit and a deep humanism. Sometimes this can evoke humour from the absurdist situations which confront the protagonist – in this trilogy the ‘loser’ character. I must confess that in this particular film I experienced fewer comic moments but I still found the narrative oddly gripping. Kaurismäki usually has a working-class male as his lead and the female characters are supporting roles, even if sometimes the drivers of the narratives. In this film there are the two women, one leading Koistinen astray, the other trying to save him.

The film is as usual quite short for a feature at 78 minutes and I wanted to know more about both women. Partly, the mystery of the women is buried in the generic elements of the narrative. This is Kaurismäki’s film noir and I kept thinking of the central character in terms of an Elisha Cook figure – the poor sap who wouldn’t make it to the end of the story. But much more likely, this is Kaurismäki in a French study, part poetic realism from the 1930s and part Jean-Pierre Melville. These references emerge much more strongly in the director’s next film Le Havre. Here Koistinen might be a role for Jean Gabin, albeit stripped of his energy. I guess that in Janne Hyytiäinen there is also something of Melville’s Alain Delon, but again stripped of vitality.

Music is always essential in Kaurismäki’s films and this film has a particularly strong soundtrack including two songs by Carlos Gardel. Born in France but taken to Argentina as an infant he was one of the most important ‘tango singers’ whose career had a tragic and almost rock ‘n roll ending when he was killed in a plane crash at the height of his powers in 1935. Kaurismäki is obviously taken by tango and I’ve realised that it fits his frequent dockside location being developed in the dockside bars of Argentina and Uruguay. There are also three songs by the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling (1911-1960), all from Puccini’s operas. One is from The Girl of the Golden West and the others from Tosca and Manon Lescaut. The French singer Fred Gouin contributes a 1928 song ‘Les temps des cerises’, possibly also a Japanese reference to ‘cherry blossom time’? (Kaurismäki has a real passion for Japanese culture.) The remainder of the soundtrack offers a selection of later Finnish recordings. I wish I knew more about music – surely someone has studied Kaurismäki’s choices? He includes elements of Finnish culture in his films but often in quite subtle ways. In this film we get to see a prison and I’m always struck by how much more civilised (and effective) prisons seem to be in Nordic countries compared to the US, UK or France.

Koistinen with the Black boy and the dog

Out of the four most recent Kaurismäki films this is perhaps  the most ‘contained’ story. It does fit into a development of an overall narrative, however. Janne Hyytiäinen appeared at the end of The Man Without a Past and the young Black boy who appears in this film (with the dog – there is a dog in all four recent films) points towards what will happen in Le Havre. I think I’m ready now to work back through some of Kaurismäki’s films in the 1990s.

LIFF 2019 #5: Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Koirat eivät käytä housuja, Finland-Latvia 2019)

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Waving goodbye to bourgeois life

Another film festival another Nordic film about grief – see Koko-di Koko-da. However Dogs Don’t Wear Pants doesn’t quite play out as expected. After a brilliant intro when protagonist Juha (Pekka Strang) is traumatised by loss, the narrative moves on a decade or so to find him still unable to function socially. He stumbles into a commercial BDSM dungeon and thinks he finds a way to reconnect with his loss.

Spoiler alert! It seems the film is going to suggest that Juha can be cured of his grief by his relationship with a dominatrix, Mona (Krista Kosonen), in the sense that it will take him to the ‘edge’ and so will recognise that his life is worth living after all. (Incidentally, Krista Kosonen’s appearance and icy demeanour reminded me of Major Kusanaga from Ghost in the Shell). However, co-writer and director J.-P. Valkeapää makes it far more interesting as he suggests the ‘perversions’ are actually potentially better than a bourgeois lifestyle; the moment Juha makes a key decision we are given a close-up of his discarded watch, a symbol of conspicuous consumption.

As is appropriate, many of the scenes are excruciating to watch (having had a tooth removed recently didn’t help my experience) though not sexually titillating. The widescreen compositions are often gorgeous, enhanced by the lurid lighting of the BDSM den. Characters are sometimes framed as if in the margins by doorways further enhancing the psychological position of the characters.

Juha has a young daughter, Elli; the intro is an inversion of Don’t Look Now‘s (UK-Italy, 1973) with the mother as the victim. A narrative strand deals with Elli’s ‘coming of age’ but it doesn’t investigate her trauma and my sympathies were more with her than her dad. She starts a relationship with a boy of her age but this, too, is fragmentary. Similarly, Mona’s motivation for her lifestyle is under-developed: on the one hand it could be argued she doesn’t need one, on the other, because she also seems to be traumatised given her tearful breakdown toward the end of the film, we do need an explanation. Also, I’m not sure the title works particularly well, as its quirkiness does not sum up the film. I also get sense that the male character development is deemed to be the important trajectory, whilst the females are ‘sounding boards’. I’m not saying all films have to be even-handed in terms of gender representation but because Dogs hints at backstories for the women it should develop them more.

Despite these criticisms, when the film is released (apparently September 2020 in the UK), if you’re not too squeamish, I recommend a viewing.

LIFF#5: The White Reindeer (Valkoinen peura, Finland 1952)

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Beauty in the arctic

The White Reindeer is a weird amalgam of Finnish folklore and what appears to my untutored eyes to be ethnographic filmmaking. However, a quick glance along the casts’ filmographies shows that most of the cast are actors and their adeptness in the frozen north with reindeer and skis is obviously born of their culture. The glimpses of Sami life are probably the most fascinating aspect of the film from the reindeer races, the weddings and reindeer herding. Director Erik Blomberg (who also coproduced, co-wrote and photographed!) brings visual flare to what must have been a tough shoot. Only occasionally is the mise en scene compromised; for example, at the climax there are already ski-tracks visible – presumably from previous takes.

The narrative, a mythic tale designed to demonise (literally) sexually voracious women, is less than gripping. The startling images make up for the lack and Bergstrom seemed to me to use the top of the frame for more action than is usual. This gave a sense of the immense landscape; one exceptionally spectacular shot was of a herd of reindeer flowing into the distance (below).

Eyes are drawn to the top of the frame by the flowing reindeer

In addition, the transition scene – the cursed woman turns into a white reindeer – uses negative effectively. The soundtrack, which I take to be Finnish/Sami folksongs, adds to the eerie otherworldliness of the images though the sound was compromised by distortion in the bass (cinema’s fault – the Vue, Leeds – not the film’s). The White Reindeer was, for me, eye-opening drama in which the milieux is more important than the narrative.

The Other Side of Hope (Toivon tuolla puolen, Finland-Germany 2017)

Khaled and Wikström

I was pleased to finally catch the latest film from Aki Kaurismäki in cinemas. I knew I would like it and indeed I spent 100 joyful minutes in the splendid Hebden Bridge Picture House relishing every moment. Looking back I see that I spelt out Kaurismäki’s unique approach in detail in relation to Le Havre (2011). Nothing has changed. The Other Side of Hope returns us to Helsinki and the docks where a man emerges from a pile of coal in the hold of a ship and walks purposefully into the city. This is Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a young Syrian who has made his way across Europe, but who has lost his sister at a border crossing in Serbia. Running in parallel is a second story about a Finnish man who leaves his wedding ring with a woman (is this his wife?) and climbs into his 1950s American-style car for his rounds as a shirt salesman.  We know very well that these two men will meet and that there will be bouts of live music from a variety of performers plus some strange encounters with officialdom, retail staff and others – everything shot in the lighting and colour palettes of 1950s cinema – although this time I also thought about the exquisite production design and mise en scène of Roy Andersson with its more drab palette but similar flat feel.

The sushi restaurant crew . . .

I don’t know quite why Kaurismäki’s films work quite so well but much of the appeal is the inherent ‘goodness’ of the characters, even when they behave ‘badly’. Khaled is a young man, but the shirt salesman Wikström is just into his 60s. Like many of the older characters, Wikström is not movie star handsome but he is allowed to be smart (but not too smart) in the way he organises things. He eventually leaves his job, wins some money and buys a run-down restaurant business. Some of the funniest scenes are those showing his attempts to ‘re-brand’ the business, including as a sushi restaurant. Here Kaurismäki gently mocks the idea of appropriating cultural identities.

Kaurismäki’s characters fall neatly into three types. The villains are simply villainous (here mainly defined as racist thugs). The officials are efficient (without being super-efficient) and apply the rules of the system fairly. ‘Ordinary’ people (less important officials, workers and Kaurismäki’s usual group of marginal people living rough) are usually helpful to the Khaleds of this world, recognising the need for working-class solidarity. If only real life was like this. Yet Kaurismäki is right to think that by presenting his absurdist images of a tolerant, accepting host country, he is performing a service for audiences in countries like the UK where a handful of Syrian refugees seems like the limit (but I’m proud to live in one of the cities that has taken a significant number). In a Guardian interview he refers to the ‘shame’ of Europe’s response to the refugee crisis, noting how Brexit will make things worse (too right). But he seems tired of making films and trying to keep up with changing technologies. I hope he gets over this and makes many more films that raise spirits. I wish he felt he could make another film in the UK (he made I Hired a Contract Killer in 1990 in the UK). We certainly need his talents and humanist commitment.

Concerning Violence (Sweden- Denmark-Finland-US 2014)

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The Leeds International Festival Catalogue describes this as an ‘essay film, rather than a documentary. This places the film in that cinematic discourse best represented by the masterworks of Chris Marker. Like those it offers a studied ambiguity that can and should stimulate the viewer’s thoughts as well as their emotions. It combines recently discovered archive footage covering wars of decolonisation in Africa from the 1960s through to the 1990s accompanied by quotation from Franz Fanon’s seminal work, The Wretched of the Earth. What follows is a short response to a complex film and I plan to return with a longer engagement on the Third Cinema Revisited Blog.

The film is divided into ‘Nine scenes from the anti-imperialist self-defence’. In the course of the film we see many sequences of the white settlers in various occupied territories, mainly lording it over the oppressed and exploited black natives. We also see various conflicts between National Liberation Movements and the colonial armies. There is extensive coverage of the struggles in what has become Angola. Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Each sequence also presents quotations from the Fanon’s book. This provides comment, analysis and ironic counterpoint to the comments of the white settlers, the colonial military, and the predominantly western journalist covering events. There are also extensive interviews with and comments by black natives, including those involved in the armed struggle. Refreshingly there is much screen space given to women, both as part of the exploited indigenous people but also as participants in the armed struggle.

Notably we also hear readings from the writings of Amilcar Cabral  [Guinea Bissau] and an interview with Tomas Sankara [Burkino Faso]. There is also an interview with Robert Mugabe from the early days after the ZANU-PF victory. Whilst there are many male voices on the soundtrack the frequent quotations are read by an Afro-American woman, Lauryn Hill.

Most of the footage was shot in 1.37:1, some in colour, and some in black and white. But the opening and closing sequences are in 1.85:1 and the footage in the older ratio is on a DCP, letter-boxed within this frame. There is also extensive use of music, both diegetic and non-diegetic. Unfortunately, [as in common in foreign language documentary] the songs are generally not translated in subtitles. There are a number of scenes of violence and horrific wounds: also of colonial atrocities.

The Director, Göran Hugo Olsson, is quoted in the Catalogue:

When you see these films today you are struck by how biased they were, and how the filmmakers were totally lost in their political views. The use of older archive material reveals perspectives and prejudices that are clear, enabling viewers to see beyond them.

I was impressed by the film. The selection of material, and especially the way that it is edited into a coherent and very effective arguments is finely done. It works well both as a film and as propaganda [expressing complex ideas supporting the movement]. One caveat that I had was that the film has added an introduction by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a writer regularly included in anthologies of ‘post-colonial’ writings: [neo-colonial would be more accurate]. She places the work of Franz Fanon with a short biopic of his life and work. She correctly rejects the notion that he popularised support for violence: the colonized must, of necessity, use violence because of ‘the absolute non-response‘ of the colonisers.

She also makes the point that Fanon’s ideas, many of them developed in the historic liberation struggle by the Algerians against the French occupation, need developing in the present day and situation. However I think she offers only a partial account of Fanon’s politics in The Wretched of the Earth. Moreover, I think her opening remarks offer a reading of the film which is not borne out. She comments on gender and appears to suggest that ‘violence against women’ is committed both by the colonial movement and the anti-colonial movements. But the film depicts armed women who state, “We are on the same level as men.”  The film does undercut some of Fanon’s reliance on male nouns and adjectives when passages are read over images of armed women fighters. But also note that he writes:

In an under-developed country every effort is made to mobilize men and women as quickly as possible; it must guard against the danger of perpetuating feudal tradition which holds sacred the superiority of the masculine element over the feminine. Women will have exactly the same place as men, not in the clauses of the constitution but in the life of every day: in the factory, at school and in the parliament.

And both images and quotations undercut the values expanded by the colonialists.

I think Spivak also overlooks the centrality of class in Fanon’s work. But this seems to me something that is at least underdeveloped in the film, especially in the Conclusion where we hear Fanon’s maxims for the future of the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist revolution. Fanon writes about the class forces in play after the end of direct occupation: a quotation from these comments would have made sense of the situation of Mugabe and Zimbabwe.

The quotations from Fanon are brief, mainly single sentences. Some the context of his position is often lost. This is the case when the film makes the point that the colonised black people use violence against their own: but Fanon is writing about the situation of the native under colonialism and before the development of an anti-colonial consciousness. One hopes that the film will stimulate viewers to read Fanon’s book – though I fear many may believe they have been provided with a sufficient grasp of his thought. The film’s title and focus is on one aspect of Fanon’s book, violence: this is where The Wretched of the Earth commences, but it goes a long way beyond this.

Even so this is a film that is unlikely to leave you unmoved and should certainly stimulate you. The audience at the Hyde Park Picture House showed their response with applause at the film’s end. This is definitely a film to see. It is getting a UK distribution [probably limited] by Dogwoof. I hoped to see it again, and did, [see http://thirdcinema.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/concerning-violence-with-a-q-a/].