It’s totally understandable to feel burnt out on biopics as a genre. They’re often formulaic to the point of self-parody, especially the American star-vehicle variety that seems specifically designed to generate applaudable clips for Oscar highlight reels. The recent Finnish film Tove admittedly does little to reinvent the biopic, but it at least finds ways to make its overly familiar tropes & structure feel intimate & tactile. It’s unlikely that anyone who wasn’t already interested in the life & art of its titular subject would get much out of the film, which likely means it does not transcend the limitations of its genre. Still, it doesn’t waste her fans’ time by shoehorning her into the by-the-numbers clichés that sink most biopics into tedium.
It helps that Tove is not a birth-to-death recap of Moomins creator Tove Jansson’s entire life. It covers only her creative breakthrough & troubled romance years post-WWII. We do not watch her experience an “Aha!” discovery at her drafting table, conjuring Moomins characters directly out of the creative ether. She’s already doodling them in the margins of her notebooks at the start of the film, as if they were idle distractions from her “real art” as a classically trained painter. Her journey in the film is less a rise-to-success story that is a slow, reluctant acceptance of the popularity of her more “frivolous” children’s book illustrations at the expense of her Serious Art. Her self-acceptance as an artist runs parallel to her volatile bisexual romances in that same period, where she also finds herself reluctant to accept which opportunities are fruitful vs which are dead ends. It’s all shot with a delicate, drunken fury in up-close, handheld engagement with Jansson as a complete, self-contradicting person – not just an iconic visual artist.
Tove is nothing mind-blowing, really, but it is lovely. I was much more impressed with the similarly styled biopic Tom of Finland a few years back, which more aggressively shakes loose the limitations of its genre. By contrast, the rejections of biopic cliché are much subtler here, rooted in exclusion & de-emphasis. I’m a recent Moomins reader, so I knew nothing of Jansson’s life going into the film beyond the most popular work she left behind. It was cool to see her raising hell in post-War Europe with her fellow art-community rebels, who dreamed that they could collectively re-shape the morals of modernity in the wreckage of the Old World. Even though the Moomins are new to my life, I likely would’ve most appreciated this film in my teens or 20s, since it presents one of those fantasy realms where every single person you know is an artist of some kind – including your browbeating parents. Seeing it now, it really only enhances the art I already adore by fleshing out the ferocious creator behind it.