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Buddha Laughs

The Gift of Seeing: Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments

  • 3/13/09 at 07:38 AM

It’s easy to see why Ingmar Bergman and not his Swedish countryman Jan Troell gets all the sugar when academics talk about late-twentieth-century world cinema: Bergman, a student of nineteenth-century philosophy and theater, freights his dramas with metaphysical baggage, whereas Troell’s characters appear to be unencumbered by anything except daily life. But that doesn’t mean there are no metaphysics — only that they don’t stop the show. They’re hidden. Every frame of Troell’s entrancingly beautiful new movie Everlasting Moments uses surfaces — light, texture, faces — to hint at another world, a shadow realm. The metaphor is right there in the story, which centers on a woman who finds an old camera in a cabinet and discovers that she has what another character calls “a gift for seeing.”

She’s Maria Larsson and played by Maria Heiskanen, an actress who can seem plain and mousy one instant and radiantly inquisitive the next. A Finnish immigrant to Sweden, Maria marries her husband Sig (Mikael Persbrandt) in 1907, and has a boatload of kids —and the film charts their marriage in a leisurely, episodic way, through births and deaths and tumultuous strikes and a World War. The narrator is Maria’s eldest daughter, Maja, who watches from the sidelines as her father comes home roaring drunk and abusive, swears off drink and joins the Temperance Society, then falls off the wagon and takes up with a barmaid.

Sig is inconstant — not a bad man but a weak one, a creature of appetite who never thinks twice about his patriarchal authority. And Maria, burdened with her children’s care, unable to earn a living on her own, is trapped in his world. That’s when she comes on that camera, a “Contessa,” which she’d won in a lottery before she was married, and in the course of trying to hock it meets a gentle camera-shop owner named Pedersen (Jesper Christensen) who’s obviously smitten. He pushes her to use the thing.

Nowadays we hold up our phones and snap a shot and send it across the world, but Everlasting Moments unfolds in an age in which the art and science of photography is still in its infancy and carries — especially for someone like Maria — a whiff of magic. Pedersen catches the shadow of a fluttering bird on a photographic plate, and there’s that other realm. (There’s also a suggestion of film in its infancy.) Gradually, Maria begins to develop a dual self; holding the camera makes her forget for a time that she’s a wife and mother. Yet her powers as an artist are inextricable from her spirit. When a young girl drowns, she asks the mother if she can photograph the body; and the image she produces seems to hold the child’s very soul.

I know that makes Everlasting Moments sound fuzzy and sentimental, but it’s the simplicity, the directness of the dead child’s photo that gives the image so much weight. The entire movie is like that. There isn’t a shot that looks like something you’ve seen before; Troell treats every frame as if the medium of filmmaking were magical and new. Period films with lots of sepia tones are usually soft in the head, but the nostalgic glow of Everlasting Moments only deepens its mysteries. Images of the young Maja on the street as she waits for her father, of her disheartened friend Ingeborg striding out into the middle of a frozen lake and disappearing into the fog, of small children gathered in a window frame trying to glimpse a dead body: They suggest at once the ephemeral and the indelible. In Troell’s miraculous vision, that’s not a contradiction.

The above is a longer version of what will appear in the print magazine. Sort of my director's cut. It's worth remembering, though, that some director's cuts are worse than their theatrical counterparts — more bloated. Longer is not always better. But sometimes it is.