I can probably count on one hand the number of biopics that have struck me as phenomenal, formally impressive cinema. Stray examples like Ed Wood & Kinsey leap to mind as I attempt to recall biopics I’ve instantly fallen in love with, but for the most part the genre feels like an endless line of passable-but-unremarkable exercises in filmmaking tedium. Tom of Finland has joined the ranks of biopics that have transcended that mediocrity for me. Depicting the adult life of the Finnish illustrator/pornographer Touko Valio Laaksonen as he drew his way into queer culture infamy, Tom of Finland excels as a kind of filmmaking alchemy that turns an unlikely tonal mashup of Cruising & Carol into the feel-good queer drama of the year. Its high class sense of style & lyrical looseness in narrative structure feels like the best aspects of Tom Ford’s features, but without his goofy storytelling shortcomings. While its sexuality isn’t quite as transgressive as the leather daddy-inspiring art of its subject, it’s still a passionate, celebratory work that sidesteps the typical pitfalls of queer misery porn dramas, yet still manages to feel truthful, dangerous, and at times genuinely erotic. It’s hard to believe the film is half as wonderful as it is, given the visual trappings of its subject & genre, but its leather & disco lyricism lifts the spirit and defies expectation. The only disappointment I have with Tom of Finland is that most audiences don’t seem to be on its wavelength, dragging my enthusiasm down with bafflingly unenthused reviews.
Part of the reason Tom of Finland is so impressive in its transcendence of biopic tedium is that it entirely forgoes the birth-to-death trajectory of that genre’s traditional narrative structure. Glimpses of the artist as a successful older man, a reluctant young soldier, a closeted adman living with his sister, and a smitten middle age romantic who happens to generate pornography, mix in a cyclical, sublimely lit intersection of vignettes that play like sardonically funny paintings in motion. The domestic softness of Laaksonen’s home life mix with the transgressive, leather-clad brutes of masculine sexuality that define his pornographic artwork and invade his daydreams as horny, in-the-flesh hallucinations. War-related PTSD becomes inextricable from the erotic, as he fetishizes a handsome soldier he killed in battle as a young man. Orchestral sweeps find divine beauty in the danger of cruising men in public & producing illegal, sexually charged art. Tom of Finland jumps time & skims consequences, trusting its audience to follow along without being held by the hand. It’s a delicately sweet portrait of an artist that’s often interrupted by queer disco reveries & seas of hairy men posing in the leather getups that turned Laaksonen on so much that his depictions of them inspired an entire spectrum of sexual fetish. If arranged in a linear order or stripped of its playfully hallucinatory erotic fantasies, Tom of Finland could easily be the middling biopic its critical consensus reports it to be. Instead, it’s a gorgeous, dreamlike drift through the life of an artist with one of the mostly highly dedicated, specialized cult audiences imaginable.
I might understand the complaint that Tom of Finland isn’t brutish or sexy enough to fully convey the transgressive spirit of its subject’s work if it at all seemed like Laaksonen was as wildly over the top as his drawings. The tension between his mild-mannered demeanor and the over-sexed aggression of his art is one of the film’s more rewarding charms. He’s far from a sexless character, shamelessly flirting with men and discussing his work in blatantly honest terms like, “My cock is the boss. If I have a hard-on I know it’s good.” Like most people, though, Laaksonen is portrayed to be not nearly as wild as his sexual fantasies might suggest, which makes it all the more amusing when he’s delighted/dazed to see his work come to life in the “heavy leather” queer kink communities they inspired in New York City & San Francisco. The sudden deluge of this dedicated fandom hits the audience with the same jolt of surprise, its accompanying disco soundtrack feeling just as surreally out of place as the imagined sexual fantasies that intrude on the physical spaces of his daydreams. The contrast between this playfulness and the high art cinematography & production design make for one of the more exquisite biopic experiences I can ever remember having in my lifetime. Normally, I’d worry if the fact that I saw this at a New Orleans Film Fest screening made me more enthusiastic because of the excitement of the environment, but a faulty stop & start projection and a fussy late night audience was actually more of a distraction than an enhancement. Given the less than ideal screening where I watched this beautiful film, it’s a miracle I enjoyed at all, much less instantly fell in love. Now I just need to figure out exactly why so few people seem to be on the same wavelength.