A Tove Janson film biography: free rooms in the house of the soul

Long after she had become world famous as the inventor of Moomin, when asked about the origin of her characters, Tove Janson replied: “Although I am a painter at heart, in the early 1940s, during the war, I felt so desperate that I started writing fairy tales.”

It is almost logical that the Finnish director Zaida Bergroth begins her film biography “Tove” with Janson, played by Alma Pöysti, drawing a Moomin figure sitting in an air raid shelter in 1944 and finally walking through a Helsinki destroyed by the war.

From the off one hears sentences from the first Moomin book “Moomin’s Long Journey”: “It must have been sometime on an August afternoon when Moomin and Moominmother reached the densest part of the jungle. (…) Giant flowers grew here and there, emitting a peculiar light, like flickering lamps, and far away small, icy green dots moved between the shadows.”

Tove Janson was Finnish and wrote in Swedish

Shortly thereafter, Tove, now 30 years old, is seen sitting with her parents, drawing again, and her father says: “It’s not art”. In just a few shots, Bergroth bridles one of Janson’s themes in life: her conflict of primarily wanting to be a painter, but not being able to let go of cartoons and writing

Bergroth traces Janson’s becoming an artist, mostly in dark, brown and yellow-tinged images. This was at a time when Tove, who was born in 1914 as the daughter of a sculptor and an illustrator, had found her calling, just without much success or a steady income.

The fierceness with which Janson defends herself against her Moomins (“I draw them to have money to live on”) is somewhat irritating. By the time Tove tells the story, she had already written three Moomin books and gained recognition abroad; as a member of the Finnish-Swedish minority, Janson wrote in Swedish, which is why her books were not translated into Finnish until the 1950s.

However, Janson’s life as an artist and the life of Finnish bohemians after the war are only the second track that Bergroth’s film follows: The focus is on Tove’s relationships with the author and politician Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney).

And on the other hand to the theater director Vivica Bandler, who comes from a rich family, and who lets Janson recognize her sexual orientation. Bandler is one of her great loves. But Wirtanen, although still married himself, wants to marry Tove. She remains vague, especially after her first night with Vivica. While eating, she says to him: “I discovered a new room in an old house.” And he, irritated: “Ah, you mean in Morocco?” – “No, I mean the inner room. The house of the soul.”

Tove often speaks such floating, metaphorical sentences. The dialogues, based on Eeva Putro’s screenplay, which Tove’s niece Sophie is said to have co-written, are among the film’s greatest qualities.

Calming uncertainty

They give his heroine her own, sometimes dreamy character in her search for artistic and sexual self-determination.

Especially since Tove’s language is also reminiscent of the mood in the Moomins books, which is always slightly menacing, despite the comical nature of the characters. What is perhaps the most famous Janson quip from the volume “Winter in the Moomin Valley” called: “Everything is very uncertain, and that’s what I find calming.”

Then it’s back and forth with Vivica Bandler, played in a brilliantly superior manner by Krista Kosonen, who goes to Paris, has other love affairs, but also can’t really break away from Tove, who is finding her way more and more.

At the same time, Bergroth subtly sprinkles further biographical milestones of Janson into her film: the commissioned work as a mural painter, the Moomin play staged by Bandler in 1948 at the Svenska Teatern in Helsinki, the meeting with an editor of the “Evening News” in London, with whom Janson signed a contract signed for weekly comic strips, making her financially independent.

That in the end Tove’s future partner Tuulikki Pietilä (Joanna Haartti) gets her first appearances and that the difficult relationship with his father after his death is clarified with a touch of kitsch – that’s a bit too much of a good round. Neither the Moomin stories nor the life of Tove Janson were real fairy tales.

By Editor

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