TOVE Review (Toronto International Film Festival 2020)

I didn’t realize the Moomins were created by an anti-fascist bisexual woman, but it was wonderful to find this all out with the help of TOVE at the Toronto International Film Festival. I think this goes to really show the power of film and how important valuable it is in telling these stories, stories we may not be aware of that occurred in times and places that are foreign to us, but highlight the universality of human experience. TOVE is one of those very stories.

Far from the stuffy and Conservative “Greatest Generation” that we may see when we look to our grandparents and great grandparents and examine a lot of what we perceive their values to be, TOVE shows us a perspective and story that may not be different from one told today. Tove Jansson is a struggling artist living in her father Viktor’s shadow. He is an esteemed sculptor, and she is unable to live up to the expectations he and a patriarchal society seem to have for her. Tove is portrayed as somewhat wild and freespirited, unhindered by convention, but desperately seeking validation and approval. She finds herself adrift in her own world, and while hiding out from a bombing raid she draws the first iteration of the famous Moomins and finds herself shirking her work to sketch out their adventures, though she is frequently shamed by Viktor who does not view the caricatures to be “real art”. Tove shirks convention in her relationships as well as her art, and while she is romanced and has feelings for Atos, a male socialist thinker and pundit, she is ambivalent about becoming a wife. It is when Tove meets the mysterious and beautiful Vivica, a rich and cosmopolitan theatre director that she finds herself in love during a time when words for lesbian encounters were foreign.
Like many couples before and after them, Tove and Vivica create their own language of onomatopoeia and pet names, and this becomes the language of the Bob and Thingumy Moomins. Tove’s life represented most realistically in the story of the Moomins, painted over with a kind of yearning and vulnerability that even she at times finds herself refusing to see. But Tove’s girlish love for Vivica is tested at almost every turn by Vivica’s flighty nature, and Tove finds herself in agony over her own feelings, and like many artists uses her art and her tenacity to keep on creating.

At once a biography of an unlikely queer icon, a gentle coming of age story, and a sad tale of unrequited love, TOVE is arresting in how it tells the story of Tove Jansson. The cinematography is as artful as the subject portrayed, and there is a unique joyous nature to the partying of Tove and her fellow artists that seems so at odds with the war time subject matter. It seems to come back to the image I think many of us may have of our grandparents – when we know them only as elders, we are often unable to see their youthful faces and picture them drinking too much, and having first loves, first heartbreaks, or in the case of Tove Jansson, first slow experimental lesbian encounters with dark haired beauties in dingy bedrooms. The way that TOVE turns the story of an artistic headstrong child being rejected and bullied by overbearing overachieving parents on its head, in a spin where the parents are artists rejecting “poseur” art, instead of tightlaced parents rejecting a queer artsy child is really remarkable. It’s such an interesting concept that seems almost unbelievable, and I think that really showcases how unique the story of Tove Jansson is. In terms of queerness, there is something so funereal about how Tove refers to her own sexuality with the same kind of in-jokes and coded language that she uses with Vivica – in English she refers to herself and other “lesbians” as “spöke” (ghosts), and that she prefers “the spooky way”. In a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, her drawings of “haunted houses (spökhus)” take on new meanings with greater context – similar to how shows like The Simpsons can have multiple layers of meaning for children and adults. There’s a kind of grief inherent in that language too, a kind of resignation to invisibility that speaks so deeply to the queer experience. Alma Pöysti so beautiful portrays Tove Jansson with a wallflower outside belying a fierce resilient inside. Director Zaida Bergroth achieved a massive win with this film that is sure to be a hit in a market in need of stories like the one belonging to Tove Jansson. This is a must seen for art students, starving artists, queer folx, and anyone who ever felt like they were haunting their own house.

DIAG RATING 6/6:  A necessary story of a queer woman who created something beautiful out of pain.

More Toronto International Film Festival coverage can be found below:
Ten Films You Must See At Toronto International Film Festival 2020

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