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Photography, the basis of cinema, is also the foundation of Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments. The Swedish title of Troell’s feature, his fourteenth, translates as Maria Larsson’s Everlasting Moments, which alludes to the photographs taken by its lead character, images of her family and community. But the photos, captured with a boxlike Contessa camera, by a wife and mother of six living in Sweden in the second decade of the twentieth century, constitute more than a mere trove of memories and impressions. They are a symbol of the new awareness imparted to modern experience by the ability to capture life on film—a central event in human consciousness. Thus, the moving story of one couple’s marriage and family life becomes a profound investigation into the artistic phenomenon of photography.
Everlasting Moments opens with the image of a camera over the title credits; we learn, in voice-over, that Maria and Sigfrid Larsson (Maria Heiskanen and Mikael Persbrandt) won the Contessa at a carnival while courting. As the film progresses, Maria takes up photography as a hobby, which provides her with an escape from her domestic obligations and Troell with an opportunity to further explore his longtime interest in recording the natural world and human nature. Always discovering the universe anew through a viewfinder, he is one of the few great filmmakers working today who frequently serves as cinematographer on his own movies (on Everlasting Moments, he shares credit with Mischa Gavrjusjov), in addition to writing and editing them.
But there’s a richness to the multitasking here that is different from Troell’s previous wide-eyed visions, from the Old World saga of his internationally acclaimed diptych The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972) to the historical adventure The Flight of the Eagle (1983) to the political biopic Hamsun (1997). Everlasting Moments, based on the reminiscences of Maja Oman, Maria Larsson’s daughter, as told to Troell’s wife (and Larsson’s great-niece), Agneta Ulfsäter-Troell, transcends biography by finding a specific, personal meaning in photography that applies as well to a hobbyist like Maria as to an accomplished auteur of cinema. The perceptions of Maria, a homemaker, stand in contrast with those of her stevedore husband, and Troell’s vision encompasses both, creating a kinetic family album. Through a series of extraordinary scenes illustrating Scandinavian winters and summers, life among poor workers and middle-class shopkeepers, and, on the periphery, Sweden’s political history, Everlasting Moments commemorates the world of its story, capturing its photographable essence and eliciting contemporary viewers’ empathy with the people who live in it. One indelible shot features Siggi cradling an injured friend whose urgings have sparked Siggi’s political sense of right and wrong: it is an epiphany, instantly revealing his emotional and intellectual potential. Through personal and social history, Troell vividly reminds us why cinema, photography, and images (memories) matter.
Structured as the grown-up Maja’s recollections of and inquiry into the mystery of her parents’ marriage, Everlasting Moments expands the Larsson family tale from culturally specific folk history into something universal. Its moving story encompasses childhood, romantic awakening, working life, social awareness—plus private discoveries, such as the creative aspirations (Maria’s diversion) or pragmatic concessions to necessity (Siggi’s work conditions) that parents sometimes hide from their children. Through these seminal moments, Troell provides a full account of a marriage’s stages, but he also deftly chronicles women’s and men’s social habits in Sweden before women’s suffrage.
The feminist message of Troell’s film may be only an undertone, but few recent movies have more compellingly portrayed the necessity and nobility of the struggle for female independence than Everlasting Moments. Yet Maria is not a symbol. When Siggi is jailed after his roughhousing turns into spousal abuse, Maria feels a shame that derives not only from his behavior but also from her relief (“I don’t miss him,” she frets). The film paints Maria’s relationship with her often hostile husband as complicated: despite his bursts of violence, Maria has a lingering, affectionate bond with Siggi, one that has both a carnal, erotic aspect and a playful one. There are undeniable pleasures in the family’s routine: they sing and frolic, and the tattoos on Siggi’s broad back become a source of entertainment for the children—and of private delight for Maria.
This is an authentic physical and emotional environment, and such immersion in vivid detail has always distinguished Troell’s filmmaking. His technique often recalls the documentary realism of the vérité movement that was in favor when he began working in film, as a cinematographer for director Bo Widerberg and on television documentaries. The revolutionary 1960s shift toward the use of available light, resulting in a limpid, unforced visual quality, is evoked in the images of Everlasting Moments. Troell’s casual verisimilitude conveys an appreciation of the world’s splendors and perils, enhancing and poeticizing his story’s atmosphere and recalling the lifelike immediacy of nonfiction realists Robert Flaherty and Joris Ivens. His attention to flora, climate, and states of natural beauty—as when the Larsson kids watch a classmate venture dangerously onto a frozen lake—stops short of pantheism yet persistently connects the characters’ psychological conflicts to the inevitable changes in precipitation or temperature. Troell’s drama is often as cyclical as the weather—like the phases of Maria’s and Siggi’s marital fidelity, and the household’s struggle with poverty. The respite of a family outing to a company picnic, where the usually uncomfortable couple relax and dance, is elevated by the rapturous sense of summer airiness—contrasting perfectly with the desolate moment when Maria and the kids escape Siggi’s violence and wander through the snowy streets, obscured by frosty haze, their isolation silhouetted against a streetcar’s solitary headlight.
Troell’s many scenes from marriages (from The Emigrants on) are earthy, physical experiences, and he enhances their naturalism with a sense of tension between the spiritual and the sensual that hails from his Scandinavian heritage, and directly from such masters of human conflict as August Strindberg and Ingmar Bergman. In Troell’s sole American film, the 1974 western Zandy’s Bride, farmer Gene Hackman adjusts to living with his Swedish mail-order wife, played by Liv Ullmann, in an environment of awesome, verdant wilderness—a literal evocation of the couple’s adventures in new emotional terrain. Troell has a silent filmmaker’s gift for finding natural allusions to human temperament. Note the crucial scene in Everlasting Moments in which Maria’s artistic intuition is encouraged by a quiet, courteous portrait photographer, Pedersen (Jesper Christensen), whose loyalty is reflected in a hangdog pet. Maria and Pedersen are tentatively attracted to each other, and their bond is cemented when Pedersen demonstrates a basic photographic principle by sensuously creating the image of a butterfly in Maria’s palm. This moment, imprinted on her consciousness, anticipates her own transformation.
Maria and Pedersen’s mutual infatuation is discreet yet momentous. He also introduces her to the movies, inviting her family to a screening of a Charlie Chaplin film that draws them out of their domestic isolation. This new way of seeing opens up Maria’s potential; it confirms her artistic yearning while unsettling her sense of purpose. Heiskanen’s portrayal of mingled hesitancy and boldness is especially moving when Maria confesses that taking pictures makes her “forget I’m a mother.” Everlasting Moments is enriched by the full scope of Maria’s womanhood; her avocation gives devastating insight into her personality and private sensibility, as when she photographs a child’s burial dressing for a grieving mother. Troell captures fleeting, immediate life and loss on film—and he expresses it with classic images. In one, Maria watches Pedersen’s departure while simultaneously recalling her Chaplin encounter. Her perceptions have expanded: she is now conscious of how art commemorates emotion and experience.
That lovely, Chaplinesque farewell (with the forest haloing Pedersen, providing a natural, wooded iris-out) is an unusual, metacinematic moment for Troell. But it is, essentially, a grace note. It summarizes the deep feeling and revolutionary compassion that a new century’s technology brought into being. In this way, Troell’s film is similar to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (written in the same period in which Everlasting Moments takes place): the two artists share an understanding of the early twentieth-century perception of experience and memory. By rediscovering the importance of the photographic image, Troell reminds us of the significance of cinema itself.
Armond White, the film critic for the New York Press, is the author of Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles and What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Movies, both from Resistance Works, WDC.