Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Tove: She Created the Moomins

The inhabitants of Moominvalley look like hippos, but they were supposedly trolls. They were created by Tove Jansson, who was Finnish but wrote in Swedish. She was a socialist, who made a lot of money with the Moomins franchise. Fans will want to know all about her creations, but the focus falls squarely on her troubled love affairs in Zaida Bergroth’s Tove, which releases in theaters this week.

Jansson was the daughter of a prominent (and uncompromising) sculptor, who initially sought to express herself as a modernist painter. However, the Moomins doodles she drew during the war, while marking time in bomb-shelters just took on their own lives. Everyone who saw them was charmed by them, except her father. However, well-heeled theater director Vivica Bandler is so taken with the Moomins characters, she commissions Jansson to write a children’s play about them and to design the sets. For her part, Jansson is quite taken with Bandler, but the purity and intensity of her attraction is not reciprocated.

Meanwhile, Jansson continues her open affair with Atos Wirtanen, a married socialist politician. In this case, it is Wirtanen who feels more for Jansson (who arguably leads him on somewhat). Throughout it all, the Moomins just keep growing in popularity, especially when Jansson contracts for a daily international comic strip.

It is pretty remarkable how the Moomins franchise has maintained its popularity (especially in Europe, but also in Japan and Russia, where original Moomins series have been produced). It has outlasted once-beloved contemporaries like
Mutt and Jeff, Lil’ Abner, Pogo, and Palooka, which were also huge popular during the early years of Moomins, but are hardly remembered anymore. Fans would probably want to see a lot of behind-the-scenes insight into the beloved Moomins world, but Eeva Putro’s screenplay is weirdly disinterested in Jansson’s greatest creation. Likewise, it entirely glosses over the wartime struggles to survive, during which time Finland was twice invaded by the Soviets (and yet Jansson and Wirtanen still subscribed to the economic philosophy of their invaders).

Instead, we get many scenes of Jansson pining for Bandler, whom Krista Kosonen portrays as a cold manipulator, so it is hard to understand her angst. Ironically, Shanti Roney probably humanizes Wirtanen more than any other figure in the film, with his highly sympathetic, all-too-human performance. Alma Pöysti can certainly kick up her heels with abandon, like the real-life Jansson, but there are just too many scenes of her silently brooding in her studio.

At least the licensed music is well-chosen. Jansson often cuts loose to vintage swing hits, like Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” and Miller’s “In the Mood.” Plus, the Mambo Noir Trio contribute some cool, more modern sounding recordings, like the distinctive “Sangre” heard over the closing credits.

There has to be more to Tove Jansson than what this film presents: basically just an unhappy love affair. Frankly,
Tove would have been much more interesting if there had been more Moomins (and maybe more wartime scenes and more Mambo Noir Trio). Yes, it is always tough when love goes unrequited, but Bergroth’s melodrama underwhelms. Still, it is worth noting that as presented by Bergroth and Putro, Jansson’s sexuality never seems to be an issue at any time during the film. It is a nice-looking period production, but it is too low-impact to make any lasting impression. Not recommended, Tove opens this Thursday (6/3) in brick-and-mortar theaters.