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Back to Basics: Jan Troell's "Everlasting Moments"

By Michael Koresky | Indiewire March 3, 2009 at 3:27AM

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
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[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

Despite its surfeit of predictable narrative cues and cinema-of-quality marks, Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell's latest work nevertheless paints a persuasive, delicately rendered image of early twentieth-century struggle. His films haven't been widely seen in the U.S. since the success of his immigrant-experience double feature back in the early Seventies ("The Emigrants" and "The New Land," the former still one of the few foreign-language films to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination), so, "Everlasting Moments," opening in New York and riding a wave of festival praise, is something of an international comeback. Certainly, thanks to moviegoers' memories of Troell's golden years and the fact that it's based on touching true stories of the filmmaker's wife's ancestors, "Everlasting Moments" will undoubtedly have a groundswell of good will surrounding it, despite its occasional imbalance between clear calculation and vivid behavioral portraiture.

Broadly, this is the film of a difficult marriage, plagued by poverty and compromised by an overabundance of children, an abusive, alcoholic husband, and, most crucially, a wife whose subtle, gradual awakening to her own gifts and emotional independence unfortunately does not match up with the restrictive times in which she lives. Specifically, and more conceptually, this is a film about the creation of images: Maria Larsson (played with an ever-crumbling stoic reserve by Maria Heiskanen) takes baby steps towards unlocking her own creative potential by becoming a photographer, with the help of a Contessa camera won in a local raffle. Within her drab tenement environs, it seems unthinkable that a woman in 1907 would devote her time to anything other than laundry, sewing jobs, and tending to the children, so Maria's hobby gives her a semblance of solace and sense of meaning, and her keen eye allows others in her community to appreciate her vision.

There's potential here for more steadfastly feminist, and anachronistic, point-making, but Troell largely stays away from proselytizing, allowing Maria's situation to speak for itself. "Everlasting Moments" works better as a portrait of a woman's stifled imagination than it does as a dramatization of a marriage: the film is often frustrated by a repetitive structure that mirrors the cycle of abuse-and-forgiveness between Maria and her loutish, dockworker husband, Sigge (Mikael Persbrandt, a Swedish star who'll be unrecognizable to most viewers stateside, and who resembles a younger, fitter version of the withering patriarch from "Fanny and Alexander"). And often, the film's stabs at opening itself up to different avenues seem only half-hearted: Sigge's near political awakening when the dockworkers go on strike; Maria's flirtation with the kindly camera shop-owner (Jesper Christensen) who encouraged her photographic talents in the first place. While this is perhaps pragmatically in keeping with the characters' progress, all else falls by the wayside, leaving little more than an elegantly wrought example of well-worn territory (it doesn't deviate too far from such turn-of-the-century Scandinavian chronicles as "The Best Intentions" and "Pelle the Conquerer").

What might have made "Everlasting Moments" a truly viable work of art (rather than above-average art-house fare) is if the cinematography had more reflected Maria's visual mindscape. For a film centered on still photography, "Everlasting Moments" is surprisingly unwilling to linger on images. Despite its burnished, bronzed appearance, which takes on the tattered fade of old photos, and its evocative sets and costumes, which often appear caked with an inch of soot, Troell's period piece remains observant rather than enveloping. Nevertheless, a handful of compositions do linger in the mind--human silhouettes emerging from smog and cast on dirty snow; a ghostly tableau of a young girl's corpse spied on by children looking through smudged windows. In these lasting moments, Troell's film becomes something more than just a personal family heirloom.

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]

This article is related to: In Theaters