If there’s a truism to Swedish cinema, it’s that Swedes sure know how to brood. The cliché of poetic but stoic Scandinavian suffering is so ingrained in art-house filmdom that Woody Allen was able to spoof his cinematic idol Ingmar Bergman with a chorus of “Wheat. Wheat. Wheat.” in 1975’s hilarious Love and Death.
Of course, it’s an unfair characterization, one refuted by Tomas Alfredson’s terrific Swedish vampire flick, Let the Right One In. But, as with most clichés, it contains an element of truth, one that the chilly nation seems to embrace. How else to explain that country’s choice to nominate Everlasting Moments for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (each country may only nominate one film) over Alfredson’s far superior effort?
Troell’s elegant but mopey melodrama certainly fits the broody bill, telling the true story of an early 1900s working-class woman who discovers she has a gift for photography, but struggles to remain loyal to her abusive husband and ever-growing family. It hits all the expected Swedish motifs — the anguish of fate, longing, and duty — and, predictably, earned itself Sweden’s Oscar nomination.
After winning a camera in the local lottery, maid and mender Maria Larsson (Heiskanen) tries to sell it for much-needed cash. Enter the charming photo-shop owner, Sebastian Pedersen (Christianson), who talks her out of pawning it and convinces her to explore her artistic side. But as Maria’s hidden talents are unleashed, her drunken, philandering husband Sigfrid (Persbrandt) reacts with jealous self-interest. And then, of course, there’s the family brood — seven children with tales and troubles of their own. Maria is caught in an emotional tug-of-war. Despite her evolving creative spirit, she views the camera as a harbinger of family tragedy, banishing then retrieving it throughout her life. She bounces between joyous self-discovery, deep friendship with Pedersen, and the demands of home, while the domineering Sigfrid slowly struggles to prove himself a worthy provider.
Despite Everlasting Moments’ gorgeous imagery and Troell’s reputation as Sweden’s new film auteur (handed down to him by Bergman), the director’s ambitions seem more statue-bound than artistic. Though there’s no denying his impeccable aesthetics, Troell’s narrative choices are highly suspect, demonstrating his Oscar-baiting sensibilities. To wit: He and screenwriter Niklas Rådström have made a rambling family epic out of what should have been an intimate personal portrait.
Schematically melodramatic and shamelessly sentimental, the film is rife with bland dialogue and pointless digressions. Rådström often undermines the story’s core — Maria’s conflict between family duty and artistic self-fulfillment — with needless detours into family trials and tribulations. Clocking in at more than two hours, Everlasting Moments can’t decide which story it’s telling, Sigfrid’s or Maria’s. The tension between the two almost could have worked had Rådström not crammed in dramatic afterthoughts, such as the near rape of daughter Maja, the suicide of Sigfrid’s “anarchist” friend, the youngest son’s polio affliction and, of course, the requisite horrors of war. Troell jumps from one digression to the next without grace or rhythm, seemingly ticking off the episodic beats of his story.
Even more confounding is Maja’s I Remember Mama-style narration, which does little to reveal Maria’s inner landscape and seems disconnected from the main narrative. Maja and her siblings are such two-dimensional characters they hardly seem worthy of attention, much less of narrating Maria’s tale.
So, why Oscar recognition? Everlasting Moments has all the trappings of a great film without ever actually being one. It is epic without scope and intimate without depth. It is a tale of female empowerment told through the eyes of a woman who ultimately rejects that empowerment. Even its title sounds generically meaningful but signifies nothing. The entire film is a well-crafted failure of artistic merit. To Troell’s credit, he does deliver one beautifully composed image after another, paying loving homage to the art of photography. But like all great photographs, his film expresses so much more when he shuts his characters’ mouths and lets the picture speak for itself.•