Period lesbians; a Finnish artist with a beloved franchise

This is a biopic of the Finnish artist Tove Jansson (played by the appealing Alma Pöysti), known for her black line drawing children's book creations, the Moomins (still current). Growing out of doodles done in WWII bomb shelters, they look a little like the Shmoos of Al Capp's "Lil' Abner," which flourished at about the same time, are a whole world, and led to comics, books, plays - a franchise. She goes through the War, coming out on the other side a deliberately unconventional woman, for the time, smoking, drinking, dancing, jumping into a sauna with a new man, engaged in a lesbian affair with the mayor's married daughter Vivica (Krista Kosonen), who's active in the theater.

"You should get married. It makes things so much easier," this lady says. Everything seems a bit tame at this remove, but this was Finland in the Forties. They're still using wind-up phonographs to play 78 rpm records.

She fights with her famous sculptor father (an unappealing Robert Enckel) from the first. He pretty much disses her all the time, though at the end turning out to have been a Moominista after all. He blocked her every step of the way, or perhaps gave her good advice she ought not to have ignored. (Everybody gets a state art grant but her, and dad, who got one, says "You should have followed my advice.") We see her having a quite impressive show of her paintings - this is where she meets the mayor's daughter, but it may already be her little drawings are what draw people in most. She also is doing politically charged magazine covers like her more supportive graphic artist mother (Kajsa Ernst).

A telling moment comes the morning after Tove's first night in bed with Vivica when a uniformed servant comes to the door and she dives under the covers. She can't always be as bold a flouter of convention as she makes out. She has a man, too, the married socialist politician Atos Wirtanen (the appealing Shanti Roney). He is solid support, and tolerant. After a sojourn in Paris Vivica starts being openly promiscuous. Tove gets Atos to marry her to compensate, and for financial security. Vivica, who's a theater director/producer, gets Tove to do a play version of the Moomin world, attended by delighted children. Her father frowns.

Always Tove thinks Moomin is just something she does to make money - she's doing a weekly newspaper comic strip, signing in the early fifties to do them for a giant US syndicate. The mayor also commissions her to do a city hall mural, which is well received. (Tove did a number of other murals, which are not mentioned here.)

All this stuff happens, with nice colors (helped by the use of 16mm, sometimes a bit undermined by the hand-held camera work) and good production values (from a 3.6 million Euro budget), nothing flashy, but nice locations, costumes, and interiors. The love life takes a back seat as the Moomins take over. But we are assured Tove painted, wrote novels and stories, and produced works from the Moomin series all her life. She gave up Vivica after a reunion in Paris, where she also encounters a whole community of lesbians. She had a faithful lesbian lover, Tuukikki (Joanna Haartti) who came along later. She embraced swing music, and it's with that that the film ends.

This is a nice little biopic. Modest compared to an art saga of the century like Von Donnersmarck's Never Look Away, it's valuable for depicting a prolific and famous bisexual artist who was predominantly lesbian. One has the feeling that a lot has been left out, that there's just too much to tell. Too much work, too many emotions. This film focuses on only 15 years of a life that lasted till age 86, though it is a key, atmospheric period. One doesn't necessarily want for more. This is a good illustration of the point that for an artist the one important thing is always to be doing the work. She is always doing it.

Tove, 100 mins., debuted Sept. 2020 at Toronto (TIFF Industry Selects); at least ten other festivals. Screened online for the May 14, 2021 US release (internet) (Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival). In US theaters Jun. 3, 2021.

See also Alissa Simon's favorable Variety review.