Tove is an intimate portrait of Tove Jansson, the Finnish writer and visual artist who wanted to become a great painter but ended up finding fame and recognition as the creator of the Moomins stories for children. Zaida Bergroth’s drama takes up with Jansson in her younger years, when she was trying to find her voice as an artist, a lover and a person. With Tove now screening online as part of the BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival, we linked up with Bergroth virtually to discuss the film.
Things are a bit peculiar this year with the pandemic, and everything going virtual. How is that changing your experience of BFI Flare, and how do you think it might play on people’s reaction to Tove?
BFI Flare is always telling essential stories. I’m really glad they remain able to do it in these times and that they decided to take Tove on board. I hope people will connect with the film and its themes: love, freedom, identity… I hope it sparks interesting conversations.
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As for the pandemic, I think there are some good things to be found here. Of course it’s a bit strange not being able to meet with the audience as a filmmaker. But letting go of the physical, there is something very beautiful in the fact that so many more people around the UK can watch the film. Audiences are so much wider all of a sudden.
Tove Jansson is such a popular figure around the world, but especially in Finland. Can you tell us about your first encounter with her work?
I have this book, the Finn Family Moomintroll, autographed by Tove. It has my name on it, and she even drew a little Snufkin on the first page. That’s my treasure – I got it when I was a little child. All these stories have always been in my life.
Did the process of working on this biopic change what Jansson meant to you?
I thought I knew quite a lot about Tove Jansson but there were so many things that came as a surprise for me. I’ve always admired her, but she felt a bit distant somehow. My admiration was a challenge in some ways, as I needed to be able to look at her from the eye-level. After making this film, I feel so much closer to her.
We focused on the 10 years in her life that preceded her breakthrough with the Moomins. In a way it was easier to relate to the life of this younger Tove, struggling with her artist identity, trying to find her voice and place in the world. It widened my picture of her; I got to discover her as a complex person, with her own insecurities and self-doubt but also with a willingness to love all the way. When she fell in love with Vivica Bandler, she fell really hard. There are so many sides to Tove. I hope the film will widen the way others view her as well.
Talking of Vivica Bandler, she is such a hypnotic character in the film. The spectator falls equally hard under her spell, alongside Tove. How did you go about portraying such an unconventional love story?
Vivica Bandler could have a movie made about her. She was a wonderful woman and an artist as well. She was married but had many lovers. She really loved women. This relationship with Vivica Bandler was life-changing for Tove; it affected her deeply. Vivica’s unconventional style felt refreshing, modern and free. Yet in the end, she was still attached to the protections and façade her heterosexual marriage provided her.
Tove was more of a romantic and wanted to love and be loved openly, even though it was 1940s Finland. She was so happy to fall in love with a woman. Not enough people know about that aspect of Tove’s life. Vivica later wrote in her autobiography that her inability to love Tove back as fiercely was one of her biggest regrets. The power dynamic between them definitely shifts during the film.
Tove is not your first experience dealing with real-life characters. How does this project fit into your larger work and what was most challenging about taking on the genre of the biopic?
Maria’s Paradise (2019) looked at evangelical ‘cult’ leader Maria Åkerblom. Though it was based on a real character, it was still a pure fiction film. We took all the liberties we could.
This is my fifth feature; they all have been very different experiences. But there is something about the all-female team I had for this project that feels special, and also fits the project. We worked pretty closely with Sophia Jansson, Tove’s niece and the creative chairwoman of Moomin Characters Ltd. She encouraged me to make a film about a real person, not an icon, to dare to make my own version of Tove. She read our scripts, commented, but never demanded anything. I had all the freedom, but still we could fact-check.
I was quite unsure to take on this project in the first place. I feared biopics and the ways in which they can restrict one’s creativity. But I realised, working on a biopic, you are still an artist, you still need to make your own version of that person. After you’ve done all the research, you have to chisel your way through that. My mother was an artist and occasionally painted portraits… She was my inspiration to find my own colours in portraying Tove. Nobody can tell about the real Tove Jansson; the only way you can respect the person you are portraying is by offering a unique perspective.
Something I find fascinating in biopics is also how they should be about capturing a spirit, a certain kind of energy rather than just biographical facts…
Yes, exactly. I was after a certain energy and spirit that I imagined belonged to Tove Jansson. She loved joy; she loved splendour; she was playful. During the casting, I was looking for an actress with a similar childlike willingness to go after adventures, tendency towards melancholy, as well as flirtatious nature. All these qualities came almost naturally to Alma Pöysti, and I am so glad she accepted the role.
The reproduction of postwar Finland’s historical setting, the atmosphere, the lighting is very evocative. What was it like to work with director of photography Linda Wassberg and your other collaborators on set?
It was interesting to try to recreate Helsinki after the war, but luckily there are places which are well preserved, like the theatre, for example, or the original home of the Jansson family. We made Tove’s studio ourselves. This studio was really the heart of the film, where she worked and where she loved.
Linda is a wonderful cinematographer. From our early discussions, we wanted the film to be as alive as possible. We did not want it to have the wrong kind of nostalgic or sentimental feeling but to appear somewhat light, alive and intimate.
Shooting on 16mm film, it gave us this beautiful texture and light. There is a softness and rawness to film – it has its own poetic mind somehow; you can’t control it. We studied Jansson’s paintings to find our colour palette. We really wanted to immerse ourselves in her world.
What are you working on currently? What should audiences be expecting from you on the horizon?
I’ve been working so much in the past years that I’m enjoying this moment of slowness. It’s a lovely place to be for a moment, not having any idea of what will happen next.
Tove will be released in cinemas this summer.
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