Biopics, biopics, biopics… always present, but rarely experimenting with a tried-and-true form, the genre tends to fall into dry tropes, and a desire to encompass the entire life of a noble (or on occasions, not so noble) figure. Zaida Bergroth’s Tove is just as much a delight as its namesake’s cartoons, and breaks the mold of artless biopics of great artists. It knows what era of Moomins creator Tove Jansson’s life it wants to tell, and is able to take the time to grow attached to its world, and make its subject deeply loveable in her self realization, both creative and personal.
Not her first experience in the world of the Moomins, having done Finnish voice work in Moomins on the Riviera, Alma Pöysti has an intriguing quality to her as Tove Jansson, and a face you can’t quite look away from. Out of all the life stories told in Jansson’s nonfiction, the film chooses to focus on the creative awakening that led to children’s sketches that would soon become the Moomins, and her relationship with married theater director Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen). In a way, this personal awakening is weighed as more important than the creative one, as it is also what it frees her as an artist. The film never shies away with the difficulties that come with professing love for another woman to the world, without feeling too heavy. Both women take different paths as they fight with themselves to detach from their relations with men, and though bittersweet, it’s clear how much love is motivating them, especially in Tove’s case.
The problem in media with depicting gay life is that it often exists in a digital vacuum. Rarely do we see lesbians with lesbian friends, and Hollywood especially assumes that friendship abides by the statistics of society, in that it believes every gay person exists in a bubble of nine heterosexuals. Tove knows that LGBTQ people band together, often as a survival strategy, and acknowledges this. Tove and Vivica dance in a crowded room of women who love each other the way they do, and can kiss there the way Vivica could kiss her husband in the outside world if she wished. This scene is so filled with freedom and life, a quality of this romance that makes it so charming.
This is the kind of love where the women laugh as they remove the other’s clothes, dance around the bedroom they share for the moment in a top hat pulled from a theater’s costume collection, and can hardly break their eyes apart. It’s the encouragement that helps Tove develop her characters, based on her own depression, and on children through the war-torn world of the mid 40s that was passing her by. Even when apart, their lives intersect, and none of the film is straightwashed. There is a noted dedication to showing the physicality of their love, with hands pawing at backs when they don’t yet want to part, sleepily toying with a lover’s bangs in the morning, and untying the straps of a dress, that makes their love feel tactile. The frequent scenes of intimacy never feel made for male consumption, with unobtrusive ways to avoid nudity, and body hair, that only serves as further evidence to call Tove an example of the female gaze.
For fans of the Moomin characters, there are plenty of nods to them, even in their way of speaking. In bed, not only will Vivica and Tove call one another the names of the series’ characters, but they will teasingly swap letters as they speak, mimicking the speaking style of the characters of Tofslan and Vifslan (the nicknames the couple had used in their letters, and the English names of the characters, Thingumy and Bob, are used in the English subtitles, losing the love details in translation). Tove’s later lover, and life partner, who is the basis of the character Too-Ticky, and is also alluded to in Jansson’s book Fair Play, Tuulikki Pietilä, appears as well.
Lesbians, let this be your period piece to fawn over for the year. From the first dance between Vivica and Tove, a chilly porch sway with eyes already glowing once locked, it’s clear the chemistry here is absolutely lovely. It’s the sort of happy ending that comes with knowing one can have multiple great loves, and that sometimes first love is best for how freeing it is in these cases. Jansson refers to having gone over to her love of women as crossing to the “spook-side”, coded language as playful as the rest of the Moomin wordplay in the script, and this awakening feels so natural adapted to screen. It’s nice to see an openly lesbian figure shown as such, with no embellishment, and she is given a film with her own artistic prowess. It’s warm, tenderly acted, and well-focused on the life chapter it wants to tell, a film that feels like it loves you back.