Jan Troell is a septuagenarian filmmaker who despite making films for over forty years, earning five Academy Award nominations, and writing, shooting, and editing his work — long before it was de rigeur for American indies — is still an invisible figure to all but those who choose the Film Forum over the spring sun.
That’s probably not going to change with his latest film, Everlasting Moments — not because it’s bad, but because it’s good.
Troell’s film, opening in New York and LA this weekend, is an ode to film emulsion and to a time when American audiences looked to foreign cinema as somehow more serious, more challenging than anything we could produce on our own shores. We seem to be looking for something different these days, and making a film with strong nuanced characters and cinematography steeped in natural light, feels like nostalgia; not for the early days of the 1900s that Troell depicts in the film, but for the 1970s, when it would have been an art-house darling and a shoe-in to make the Oscar roster for the shamefully slender category of Best Foreign Language Film.
For starters, Everlasting Moments is painted in a Bergman bleakness fitting for the claustrophobic themes of marriage that have marked much Troell’s work and drawn comparisons between him and that icon of Swedish film. The narrative follows Maria Larsson, a woman trapped by matrimony to hard drinking, hard working, longshoreman Sigge — an archetype not updated by current depictions of blue-collar workers bent by booze, womanizing, and capitalism. Beneath the weight of his words, and often his fists, she’s also held captive by a litter of children, food shortages, and a Sweden still waiting to be liberated by designer furniture. Her fleeting relief from this life is supplied by a camera she wins in a lottery, which triggers a quotidian appreciation for shadows, her cat, and most intriguingly the proprietor of a photo-atelier who inspires her to see beyond the fascinating novelty of the young glass-plated medium.
While her work doesn’t go under-appreciated, especially by her photog-mentor, whose love can only be expressed by his admiration for her eye over her body, hers is a life where art is not an option. Troell suggests her photophilia through his own loving relationship with the lens by creating moments digital can’t, and doesn’t want to, compete with: a small girl disappearing into the mist of thawing ice, a butterfly fluttering against a window pane, the folds of her husband’s muscles beneath his sailor tattoos. The natural tones and careful framing implies the sepia-colored prints Maria makes at night in her home darkroom, while we hold our breath knowing it’s only a matter of time before this artistic inspiration threatens her husband and therefore her safety.
All of this is handled in the gentle manor of an aged hand, and that’s where Everlasting Moments begins to tremor. It doesn’t fit in the current landscape of foreign cinema that fuels top ten lists, or lines around the block. Independent American cinema now fills the role of the serious emotional picture fueled by artful camera techniques, whereas foreign cinema audiences are looking for the more exotic pleasures of shock, (with Miike, Noe, and Park leading the march), befuddlement (see the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul), and sublime subtlety (Hou Hsiao-Hsien). There’s also the new wave of international genre flicks which receive the least amount of critical attention, good or bad, and have the biggest box office draw for films that American audiences still have to read off the screen. The brilliant action work of Johnny To, J,K, and now even F, as in French-horror, and most recently the success of mafia-verite Gomorrah, are all fine examples what guns, guts, and gangsters can still do for cinema.
And then there’s , the sweeper at the Swedish Oscars (the Golden Beetle) but a film doomed by its own sure-handedness. For those outside the rapidly shrinking Merchant-Ivory demographic, Troell’s latest has little to offer except a well-told tale that is evaporative compared to the delightful head-scratchers and genre-benders waiting to be stolen by film students and Hollywood execs.