Jan Troell’s film was the Swedish nomination for best foreign language film at the 2009 Academy Awards. Troell (born 1931) is one of the masters of Swedish Cinema, probably best known for his two epic films about Swedish emigration to the US (The Emigrants (1971) and New Land (1972)). I don’t remember those films very well, but one sequence has always stuck in my memory when, trying to bring home an ox in a snow blizzard, one of the immigrants decides that the only way to survive is to kill the animal and crawl inside its still warm carcase. I’ve probably got the details wrong, but as a survival tip, I’m unlikely to forget the basic principle.
Everlasting Moments was a very ‘personal’ project for Troell. The story comes from a woman who was related to Troell’s wife, Agneta Ulfsäter with whom he created the scenario (thus the film’s Swedish title, Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick). The actual screenplay is by Niklas Rådström. Maria (‘Maja’) was one of seven children of a Finnish immigrant who married a Swedish man and raised her family in Malmö and its environs – Troell’s home region. Maja ‘narrates’ the story. Maria (the mother) won a camera, a ‘Contessa’, in a lottery. As a working-class woman with a growing family to support in 1909, she took the camera into a photographer’s studio hoping to sell it. But the photographer, clearly affected by something in Maria’s manner, persuaded her to try taking a few pictures first. When her first attempts are developed the photographer sees immediately that she has a special eye for a strong image. She decides to keep the camera, but her chances to use it will be limited – not least because of her violent husband’s dangerous drunken tantrums.
The film’s narrative details the family’s history over the next fifteen or so years, during which time more children are born, Sigi the father has a succession of jobs – including a stint as a conscript in the Swedish Army – and Maria takes a number of significant photographs. The marital relationship will also get further strained.
For some reason, the UK release print of the film was cut by 20 minutes. There is no indication of why this occurred and I don’t know if it was the director’s or the distributor’s decision. The Independent‘s reviewer thinks that “something might be missing” whereas the Sight and Sound reviewer says the film could lose 15 minutes – perhaps she saw an American cut and the distributor followed her advice? I mention this only because the slow pace of the film and its lack of a Hollywood narrative structure are inevitably mentioned in the various critical responses. At the same time, the film is described as ‘conventional’. What this means, I think, is that the narrative follows the major incidents in the history of the family in chronological order. The story has a ‘natural’ end which I won’t spoil and none of the contrivance of Hollywood. The striking feature about the look of the film is that Troell (himself a cinematographer and photographer) chose to shoot in Super 16mm to preserve a sense of grain and age and to use filters to create a golden/sepia tone – which does not necessarily ‘prettify’ what are often dark scenes.
This is a beautifully written film – and features acting, cinematography, set design and direction of the highest standards. Many of the important ‘moments’, in themselves often small events, are representative of the changes in Swedish society in the early 20th century – and they are captured in wonderful still photos. (The DVD includes a gallery of the ‘real’ photographs which informed the script.) Those changes include the struggles over Sweden’s emergence as a modern industrial nation with strikes and communist/socialist/anarchist actions followed by the decision to follow a policy of ‘armed neutrality’ in 1914. The central role of photography also inevitably means that we see the family enjoying the arrival of the ‘cinematograph’ (rather later for them than for many in the UK or US). But the main theme is the struggle for female independence and how the lure of photography both provides a focus for Maria’s sense of identity and purpose (beyond her central concern for her children) and the means to record aspects of women’s lives. One of several beautiful images is created for a neighbour who asks Maria to take a picture of her daughter in her coffin after a drowning accident.
I should also point out (whilst trying to avoid spoiling the narrative) that the actions of the violent husband and Maria’s responses have invoked strong reactions from some audiences.
I think that despite the subject matter and the expressionist way in which the scenes are rendered, Everlasting Moments is not a melodrama. I might change my mind if I see the film on a cinema screen, but I did not sense the emotional pull of ‘excessive’ music or acting style. However, there is a great deal of emotion residing in the images and what they connote and this is the triumph of Jan Troell and his collaborators.
Here is the film’s US trailer: