Friday, March 6, 2009

Jan Troell: A Master at Work

Everlasting Moments
Directed by Jan Troell
Written by Jan Troell, Agneta Ulfsater Troell and Niklas Radstrom
Starring Maria Heiskanen, Mikael Persbrandt, Jesper Christensen, Callin Ohrvall

Opens March 6, 2009

Heiskanen in
Everlasting Moments
(photo: Nille Leander)
In Jan Troell’s beautiful new film, Everlasting Moments, Maria Heiskanen discovers the wonders of photography while raising seven children and putting up with an alcoholic, abusive husband in early 20th century Sweden. Almost imperceptibly throughout the film, Maria learns more about herself and her loved ones as she begins taking pictures, first as a hobby, then—after many fits and starts during the bumpy years of her marriage—as an artist, however accidental.

This simplest of stories could be considered old-fashioned, both in its time frame and the way it’s visualized onscreen. But Troell—at age 77 a true grand old master of cinema—has made a film that’s at once a heartening example of artistry distilled to its very essence and a riposte to the frantic shrillness of a current, empty award-winner like Slumdog Millionaire.

With acute insight, Troell paints a loving portrait of an ordinary woman excelling in a difficult era for her gender’s place in society. Maria is certainly no early feminist; instead, Troell and Maria Heiskanen (in a subtle, nuanced portrayal) create a headstrong woman whose picture-taking liberates her from the usual household drudgery, even if she never fully comprehends its meaning in her life.

Maria’s husband Sigge is a bruiser, a brawler, a drunkard, a womanizer and a wife beater. What sets him apart in Mikael Persbrandt’s dynamic performance is his three-dimensionality, which allows his uncommon, even misguided type of humanity to peek through, whether it’s the genuine love for his children or his affection for a good friend. The other man in Maria’s life—Mr. Pedersen, the middle-aged photographer who begins Maria’s journey of self-discovery and remains her platonic friend and mentor—is heartbreakingly played by Jesper Christensen.

Troell’s usual brilliance with actors is shown by the rest of the large—and largely flawless—cast, particularly those who play Maria and Sigge’s children. In his best films—Here Is Your Life, The Emigrants, The New Land, The Flight of the Eagle, the first-rate documentary Land of Dreams—Troell shows us recognizably flawed, regular people in the most honest, perceptive portrayals of human goodness seen onscreen since Ozu and Olmi at their peak. (Even the Nazi sympathizer in Troell's most recent masterpiece, 1996’s Hamsun, was allowed a sympathetic if skeptical analysis.) Everlasting Moments continues this extraordinary director’s unbeatable track record.

Troell avoids the obvious clich├ęs of filming someone taking photographs. The initial darkroom sequences are filled with Maria’s surprise, then curiosity, as we see this woman’s initial puzzlement become amazement and, finally, satisfaction. Showing her actual picture-taking, the director moves between comedy and tragedy, the latter in a haunting sequence where a young suicide’s mother requests pictures of her dead daughter to remember her by.

Only once, near the very end, does Troell use a freeze-frame to visualize the content of an actual photo, and this moment—in lesser hands, a visual platitude—has great power and effectiveness. Remarkable, too, is Troell’s and Mischa Gavrjusjov’s sepia-soaked cinematography, which appears to catch light in half-tones, as it were—the shadows dancing on these very human faces provide a kind of visual wonderment that can’t be reproduced by any other director.

Although there are many everlasting moments recorded in Troell’s aptly-titled film, the most permanent is undoubtedly his splendid film in toto.

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