It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time in the early 1970s—an era a little more open to foreign-language and “artsy” films in the mainstream—when Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell was considered almost in the same league with Ingmar Bergman. This was largely due to The Emigrants (1971), which just happened to feature two key Bergman players, Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann. Troell even succumbed to the inevitable Hollywood offers—resulting in Zandy’s Bride (1974) with Gene Hackman and Ullmann and the misguided remake of John Ford’s The Hurricane (1937) with Hurricane (1979). Though Troell’s films became more and more infrequent—and less and less imported to the U.S.—he’s never completely abandoned film, and with Everlasting Moments the 78-year-old director’s latest has arrived here.
Everlasting Moments is an unusual work. It’s one of those strange movies—like the films of Satyajit Ray—that one seems to inhabit rather than watch. To experience Troell’s film is to be transported into the Sweden from about 1907 till a bit after WWI—at least that is the feeling it conveys. It’s a film that never seems to be people playing dress up and pretending to be “historical people.” No, the characters of Everlasting Moments appear to think of themselves as modern, not as period pieces, and this is what gives the film much of its flavor. Combine this with the absolutely gorgeous imagery of Troell (who co-photographed the film) that suggests his film might actually be from the period of its story and you have a remarkable work.
The film tells the story of a woman, Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), her husband Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt) and their children. The couple is not a well-matched pair. She’s more intelligent than he and far gentler in nature. Sigfrid is clumsy, occasionally brutish and given to taking up political causes it’s hard to believe he actually grasps. He’s also prone to drunkenness—often of a public variety—and womanizing. The latter, of course, is of the double-standard variety—he can do what he likes, but Maria must behave herself scrupulously.
The crux of the story involves a Contessa camera that Maria won in a lottery. It’s this camera that gives the film its dramatic and thematic point. When times are particularly hard for the Larssons, Maria takes the camera to a photographer with the idea of selling it. The photographer, Sebastian Pedsersen (Jesper Christensen), however, is drawn to Maria—in part because neither are native Swedes (he’s Danish; she’s Finnish). Rather than buy the camera, he insists that she try using it. In so doing, her life is transformed. She sees the world in new ways and discovers the solace and sense of self-worth that comes with finding a means of artistic expression. Not surprisingly, this only increases her dissatisfaction with her life with Sigfrid.
Thankfully, Everlasting Moments (referring to moments captured in time in photographs) is nothing like the Lifetime Movie goo the title suggests. Instead, it’s constantly surprising—sometimes infuriating—in small ways. Little in the film qualifies as a “big moment,” and so the movie’s undeniable power comes from amassing little moments that take on a size of their own. I won’t give away the specifics, but I will say that it’s a film where the tiniest thing is apt to prove important to the understanding of the characters—or if not to understanding, then at least to the acceptance of their choices.
It’s easy to see from Everlasting Moments just why Troell was never able to attain the acclaim of Bergman. His work is less spiritual (very little Lutheran angst here) and less psychological. He isn’t out to penetrate his characters’ minds. He’s more interested in simply observing them with sympathy. In truth, there’s more of Jean Renoir (who eschewed easy answers by saying “everyone has his reasons”) than Bergman about Troell. The problem with that—at least in Troell’s hands—is that it results in a lack of traditional drama. That’s a lack that is apt to make Troell’s work seem too slow for some tastes. With that in mind, I’ll simply say there’s gold in this film for those patient enough to mine it. Not rated, but contains adult themes.