Tove

Director: Zaida Bergroth (Finland, Sweden). Year of Release: 2020

Helsinki, 1944. A woman is making her way through bombed out buildings. We will soon see her introduced at a party as the artist Tove Jansson. She chats to the socialist politician Atos, who explains how he thinks that exposing his emotions is the worst thing possible. She then confronts him with that most Finnish of chat-up lines: “shall we go to the sauna?”

Tove is a “member of the artistic community”, and all that that entails. She has drawn some cartoons attacking Hitler, but her politics mainly seem to consist of enjoying herself and doing her best to destroy bourgeois boundaries. She regularly sleeps with Atos, but tells him that of course marriage isn’t something for people like them. He looks disappointed, even though he’s already married to someone else.

One day, a woman meets Tove at a party and demands that she illustrate an invitation to her father’s birthday party. The two women find something they have in common – Vivica’s father is the mayor, while Tove is equally in awe of her father, a famous sculptor who disregards her work as mindless doodles. Emboldened by their unity, Tove and Vivica tear each other’s clothes off. When the maid arrives in the morning, Vivica shoos her away while Tove hides under the bed covers.

The story of Tove is not so much that she is a lesbian, or bisexual, but that she is in love with two people, one of whom happens to be male, and one of whom is female. And her love for Vivica is stronger, more compelling, than being just about sexual orientation. At one stage, Vivica leaves for Paris, leaving Tove bereft. She can’t afford to join her lover. Vivica’s solution is to get her father to commission a new work from Tove, but by the time that she’s finished, Vivica is back in Finland.

I think that some reviewers have got Vivica wrong, by describing her as heartless. I can see where they might get this from – it’s not a great look to have your lover meet you at the airport when you have a ballerina on your arm. But while Vivica vaguely understands Tove’s need for monogamy, she is less willing to commit herself. After all, doesn’t the artistic vision mean rejecting bourgeois ideas like dependency?

It is probably also worth pointing out here that Vivica can afford to be a rebel. She is born into money, so it doesn’t really matter who she upsets. The depiction of Tove is slightly ambiguous – her father is clearly rich and successful but she lives in an artistic garret where the electrics are likely to give you a shock. And it is far from clear that her father will financially support her. She clearly need to work for a living much more than Vivica does.

Tove fights her father’s disdain – both for her paintings, which are slightly Expressionist and too avant garde for him (although Expressionism had been around for many decades, so shouldn’t be too frightening), and her cartoons, which he dismisses as being merely frivolous. But Atos may be able to find a job for Tove drawing cartoons for his left wing newspaper. And one of the selling points that he offers is that it will really piss off her father.

Are the Moomins still a thing? I read a review which said that few people would know the name Tove Jansson, yet her name is as familiar to me as the simple cartoons and the copy of Finn Family Moomintroll, and God knows what else, that I had on my bookshelf as a kid. Though it is only this minute that this is “Finn” as in Finland and the title must be a pastiche of Swiss Family Robinson. I had just seen it as 3 random words, typical of the made-up language used by the Moomins.

Tove gives us some insight about this language, and hints at its similarity to Polare, the language adopted by gay men in 1950s Britain, when gay sex was still illegal. Tove and Vivica call themselves Tofslan and Vifslan. adopting the suffixes used by the Moomins. Later, when Vivica directs a play based on the Moomins, two of the leading characters are called Tofslan and Vifslan. This is a sign of intimacy from a character who finds it difficult to express her feelings.

Tove is a biopic, which means that it is forced to be made in a slightly conventional format, but it is a story of an unconventional, at times illegal, life. This means that it is never less than interesting. More than this, the struggling relationship between Tove and Vivica is truly difficult, partly because neither is sure that she is ready for love, but also because of social conventions which meant that discussion of love between two women could not be discussed.

Well, not everywhere. Some of the parties shown in Tove are of women who are happy to dance with each other, and equally happy to watch other people dancing. Indeed, in amongst all the anguish there is a lot of dancing in Tove. Sure, life as a women who loves women was not easy in the post-war period, even if you had some money to defend yourself. But it never meant that you were not able to dance (there is a lot of dancing in Tove, and it is all the better for this).

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